$6 million research lab will produce ethanol and other biofuels from grasses and biomass

A former agricultural engineering, power and machinery lab at Cornell is being gutted to make way for a state-of-the art Biofuels Research Laboratory that will convert perennial grasses and woody biomass into cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels and will occupy the entire east wing of Riley Robb Hall by January 2009.

The $6 million lab is being constructed thanks to a $10 million grant awarded to Larry Walker, Cornell professor of biological and environmental engineering, from the Empire State Development Corp., and will include analytical equipment, incubators, fermentors and other state-of-the-art biotechnology equipment.

"Biofuels is the emerging program for our department, if not for the whole university," said Mike Walter, chairman of the Department of Biological And Environmental Engineering (BEE) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The department plans to offer a master's of engineering program focused on biofuels in fall 2008 because demand for trained biofuel engineers is skyrocketing, said Walter. The department has also recently hired Largus Agenent from Washington University as an associate professor of engineering. His research focuses on biogas and fuel cells.

The new lab will be shared by faculty and students across campus. Faculty members expected to work in the laboratories include Larry Walker, Beth Ahner, Norm Scott, David Wilson, Jim Gossett, Susan Henry, Harold Craighead and others involved in the biofuels research program at Cornell.

Five separate labs will be equipped to focus on different aspects of biofuels research, including two growth chambers for specialty plants -- "biomolecular farming," as the engineers call it -- that express different proteins. Researchers are working to overcome the physical, chemical and biological barriers to liberating sugars from such alternative energy crops as switchgrass, biomass sorghum and other perennial grasses as well as woody biomass, and to biologically convert these sugars into such biofuels as ethanol, butanol or hydrogen.

The facility has been designed so that feed stock materials -- the plants -- will enter at the north end of the building to undergo pretreatment, bioconversion and fermentation processes in an integrated and engineered framework. State-of-the-art analytical systems will allow the researchers to work at different scales, ranging from understanding fundamental molecular mechanisms at the nanoscale to larger scales with fermentation vessels up to 150 liters.

Programming in biofuels research at Cornell is primarily supported by a $750,000 NYSTAR grant for biofuels research received by Walker in 2005, in addition to some monies from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which currently funds the Northeast Sun Grant Initiative.

"One of our challenges is going to be finding additional programming money," said Walter.

The architect for the project is SWBR Architects, from Rochester, N.Y. LeChase Construction Services was recently awarded the construction contract. The construction progress can be tracked online at http://www.nesungrant.cornell.edu/cals/sungrant/institute/index.cfm.

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