BSC program benefits N.D. plants

BISMARCK - When the Red Trail Energy ethanol plant at Richardton breaks ground in July, it will be with the expertise of graduates of Bismarck State College's process plant technology program.

BISMARCK - When the Red Trail Energy ethanol plant at Richardton breaks ground in July, it will be with the expertise of graduates of Bismarck State College's process plant technology program.

"Our consultants are primarily all coming out of that program," said Red Trail project coordinator Frank Kirschenheiter. "Our general manager will be one of their graduates."

With half a dozen or more ethanol or biodiesel plants proposed in the state, BSC's graduates are going to be even more in demand. New ethanol plants have been announced in recent months for near Underwood and Williston, with the Underwood one making ethanol from coal.

Gov. John Hoeven announced Thursday that Cargill plans a corn ethanol plant in Spiritwood. Other corn ethanol plants are being discussed for the southeast corner of the state and near Valley City, according to the North Dakota Corn Growers.

"It's really the hot industry in the nation," Kirschenheiter said.


Another company has announced it will build a plant near Minot to process canola into biodiesel.

BSC isn't just now jumping on the bandwagon to churn out process plant technicians to meet this new boom in alternative energy. Its program was started in the 1980s to prepare workers for Dakota Gasification's Great Plains Synfuels Plant in Beulah and has been going ever since, turning out technicians to work in oil refineries, natural gas processing plants and other facilities.

BSC has now restructured the program so it is more focused on the industry's new demand for ethanol plant workers.

Dan Schmidt, who directs BSC's energy technology online program, was in the first class and recalls that "90 percent of that class got hired on at Dakota Gas."

The beauty of the processing plant industry and BSC's program is that the same training applies - whether a plant is refining oil, processing natural gas or producing renewable fuels.

"You're looking at the same type of equipment," said Chad Wetzel, a graduate of the BSC program and now an instructor. "You can step into any facility and know the process." And that goes for ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, fuel cells or coal liquefaction, he said.

He knows BSC's program is producing good workers because he worked at plants with them in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota before returning to Bismarck to teach.

A company official he worked for in South Dakota told him, "These are some of the best workers we've seen in an ethanol plant."


The processing plant technology program is located in the BSC VocTech center with the college's power plant technology program. They share many instructors. It has several replicas of area power plant equipment to provide realistic handson training.

The programs' quarters are getting crowded, and officials are anxious to see construction start on the college's new Career and Technology Institute on the campus's south edge.

Enrollment in the power plant and processing plant programs has been exploding in part because the course has been offered online since 1998. Enrollment in the traditional classroom program is limited to 112 students per year.

"To get into the first semester (of the classroom program), the waiting list is over a year," Schmidt said. About 400 students take it online from as far away as Georgia and Alaska. Students from 49 states have been enrolled at one time or another.

Online instruction is via animated graphics of the same equipment classroom students learning about, in addition to Web-published versions of the same lectures given in the classroom.

"It's not just a couple of animated GIFs and text and a Web page," said Zachary Allen, an instructor who develops classes into Internet versions.

Students also can learn to operate plant simulators online because many plants actually use remote technology, the instructors said. For example, the federal Western Area Power Administration station in Bismarck is controlled from Watertown, S.D., Schmidt said.

Whether they are learning online or on campus, all students must have a period of hands-on experience. They can do it near their home with a cooperating plant or they can come to Bismarck and work at one of the plants in the area.


The online students have the convenience of taking the course any time, day or night, but they don't have the luxury of being able to poke along in the program at a leisurely pace. They are expected to keep up with the same calendar schedule of progress as their classroom peers.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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