UC Merced Connect: Student maps areas for biofuel

June 21, 2013 

— Working to map every square inch, UC Merced grad student Andrew Zumkehr found there are 111 million acres of abandoned farmland in the United States.

That's a lot of space for growing biofuels that could replace between 5 percent and 30 percent of the United States' primary energy or liquid fuel demands, he said.

Zumkehr and professor Elliott Campbell with the School of Engineering wrote a paper based on the mapping, which was published recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

It's an example of how UC Merced researchers are contributing knowledge that will lead to more informed energy policies.

"We used satellite images, census data and modeling to find all the abandoned cropland where biofuel can be grown," Zumkehr said. "If this actually happened, it could meet some of the U.S.'s primary energy or liquid fuel demand."

As a student in Campbell's program for the past two years, Zumkehr focuses on energy and sustainability, looking at agriculture, biofuels and local food issues. Being from Atwater, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, Zumkehr has an interest in agriculture in particular.

The maps are theoretical in the sense that not all of the land is available or of a quality where crops could be grown efficiently without farm subsidies. But he said crops such as switchgrass and Miscanthus, two tall grasses, could be ideal biofuel crops.

"It could be dried and burned, used in a gassifier or developed into liquid fuel," he said. "If we were to do it, it's not really a long-term solution. Biofuels alone are not going to replace fossil fuels or coal, but they could supplement other energy sources."

Alumnus witnesses lawmakers at work

As a founding student at UC Merced, Justin Duckham trudged up the hill every day for classes. Now, he spends many of his days on a different hill — Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

"I go to a couple of briefings each day on The Hill or at the Pentagon," said Duckham, senior Washington correspondent with Talk Radio News Service. "There's a lot of running around trying to get good sound bites, but I'm watching history unfold."

Duckham, who was a history major, landed his job through an internship he began while he was in the University of California Washington, D.C. program.

After he finished the internship and graduated from UC Merced, he returned to Talk Radio News Service as a temporary employee. Through hard work and tenacity, he turned that into a permanent job. He's been an occasional guest on Fox News and writes for a music blog on the side.

Duckham credits what he learned in his UC Merced history courses — especially about the Cold War — for his perspective on the news. He sees much of his experience through a historical lens.

He attended the funeral of Neil Armstrong, which he likens to a service for Columbus or Magellan — explorers whom history will never forget.

He covered election night 2012 from Chicago, seeing firsthand the response in Barack Obama's hometown when the president was re-elected.

He's even interviewed Dan Rather and made the veteran newsman chuckle by saying he felt like a minor league back bencher playing with Babe Ruth.

One thing has surprised him — the amount of gray area in the real world. In a way, it was something he said he was prepared to learn because some of his professors emphasized taking a broad view of the world.

"Even after I left UC Merced, I had a black-and-white view of politics," Duckham said. "I viewed people with opinions different than mine as mustache-twirling villains or Darth Vader types. Now, my view has become more nuanced. I see the human side of politics. I understand that very few people are legitimately evil."

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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