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Congressman Massa calls Biofuels Research Laboratory 'national asset'

U.S. Rep. Eric Massa (D-Corning), the first member of Congress to visit Cornell's new Biofuels Research Laboratory, called the facility a "national asset" that could join with New York agribusiness to deliver cellulosic ethanol from "the dirt to the tank."

Massa, the lone New York legislator on the House Committee on Agriculture, said the laboratory holds great promise for solving the U.S. energy crisis, as well as transforming the economy and preserving America's national security.

"You're looking at the future when you walk down those halls," Massa said. "When you talk about changing the direction of a nation, it's bigger than a single industrial sector. ... This is as fundamental a change as was the shift from the horse and plow to the steam engine and from the steam engine to the electric generator. It's as if we are looking at going from a wagon trail to a railroad to the Erie Canal to the [New York State] Thruway."

The $6 million lab, funded by the Empire State Development Corp., opened in January in Riley Robb Hall to develop sustainable and economical biofuels from such nonfood crops as sorghum, willow and switchgrass. Under one roof, Cornell researchers are examining all phases of cellulosic ethanol production -- from identifying the grass inputs most suitable to the Northeast climate to analyzing the best enzymatic cocktails for converting plants into fuel.

During his 90-minute tour April 16, Massa heard from Larry Walker, principal investigator for the lab and professor of biological and environmental engineering, and Susan A. Henry, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), among others, including students. Later, he met with President David Skorton before visiting the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.

The Cornell group discussed the benefits of cellulosic ethanol over corn-based fuel, which can contribute to rising food prices and often requires extensive fertilizer applications that can leach into groundwater. Given the urgency of the energy crisis, Walker said additional funding is critical to accelerate the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and other nonfood biofuels.

"We can make cellulosic ethanol today; we can do it," Walker said. "It's doing so in a sustainable and economical way that'll take some time. We need further research and development to break through the barriers to commercialization."

Massa, who also sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said he envisions "The defense of our country, powered by New York switchgrass" -- a future where the military's tanks, ships and planes could run on biofuels rather than fossil fuels.

Ultimately, he pointed to the transformation of American industry and society following the Great Depression and the outcome of the space race as models for confronting modern challenges with visionary thinking.

"I'd trade anything to be a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Cornell, because those individuals are the ones who are going to live this change that we're trying to put in place," he said.

Ted Boscia is a staff writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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