Mittlefehldt Receives Magnaghi Research Grant

Mittlefehldt in front of her wood pile at camp.

Northern Michigan University Professor Sarah Mittlefehldt has been awarded the Grace Magnaghi Upper Peninsula Research Grant for her project, “Distilling the Forest: A History of Liquid Biofuels in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.” The project focuses on the production of methanol out of wood, the unintended consequences of doing so, and what can be learned from what was once the largest wood distillery in the world—the Cliffs Dow Chemical Company in Marquette, Mich.

“I'm interested in what we can learn from the past to inform the future on issues around sustainability,” Mittlefehldt said. “Most recently, I've been focused on the historical development of bioenergy production. There's a lot of research on the engineering aspects and the technical parts of it, but I'm curious to know how different types of bioenergy have been incorporated into landscapes and how different communities have been affected by these technologies.”

Mittlefehldt began conducting preliminary research on the topic at the Central U.P. and NMU Archives over the summer. She analyzed papers donated from the former president of Cliffs Dow Chemical Company and other collections regarding forestry and the forest industry in the Upper Peninsula.

Students taking Mittlefehldt's senior research class in the 2023 fall semester will help to design and conduct oral history interviews with Marquette area residents who worked at or lived near the Cliffs Dow plant.

Last spring, Mittlefehldt was invited to participate in workshops by the U.S. Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). 

"The director of BETO stated that ‘Electric cars are here, and they're here to stay. But there are parts of the transportation sector that are hard to electrify, such as jet fuel, ATV, and marine fuels because of battery limitations or other barriers.' There are national conversations happening about the need for different types of biofuel development. I'm interested in what we can learn from the past about the social and environmental impacts of wood-based methanol production.

"As a lot of people in Marquette know, the former Cliffs Dow facility was one of the city's largest employers, but it was also very contaminated. I am interested in connecting this important local history to broader national and even global trends.”

The research grant was established by the late Grace Magnaghi in 1999 to support research on the Upper Peninsula. Mittlefehldt said she is thankful for the family's funding supports and for the Central U.P. and NMU Archives' important role in preserving local and regional history.

Prepared By

Max McCullough
Student Writer

Categories: Around NMU, Research