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New Cornell initiative transforms 'biotrash' into bioenergy to help fuel the university

In a new campus initiative, vegetable oil from deep fryers in campus dining halls, animal bedding, farm waste and other sources of "biotrash" will be transformed into fuels for use on campus.

The Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES) has launched the Cornell University Renewable Bioenergy Initiative (CURBI), an ambitious plan to use 57 campus waste streams and other biomass resources to generate bioenergy to keep Cornell humming in economically, environmentally and socially sustainable ways. CURBI is a key component of President David Skorton's Advanced Sustainability Action Plan and the Cornell Climate Action Plan and is intended to be a model bioenergy operation for New York state and the country.

"CURBI -- a partnership between research, the CUAES and Cornell's administration office to create a living learning laboratory at Cornell -- represents a new chapter in Cornell's efforts to promote a sustainable environment," said Stephen T. Golding, executive vice president for finance and administration.

CURBI will not only be an operations and research-based facility but also will be used for teaching and outreach to showcase multiple cutting-edge technologies under one roof to produce renewable energy.

Slow pyrolysis, for example, is one of the technologies CURBI is considering; it generates both energy and a valuable soil amendment called biochar, which when added to soil, sequesters carbon, making it the only renewable energy technology that actually removes carbon from the atmosphere and buries it. Although no commercial slow pyrolysis operation yet exists in the United States, Cornell is home to Johannes Lehmann, Cornell professor of crop and soil sciences, one of the world's leading experts in biochar.

A feasibility study -- funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in partnership with Cornell and launched in January by the engineering firm Stearns and Wheler -- is assessing the engineering, economic and environmental viability of pyrolysis and other technologies being considered for CURBI.

CUAES agricultural operations director Drew Lewis, who spearheads CURBI, says that housing different renewable energy technologies under one roof -- or in close proximity -- will offer beneficial opportunities for comparing, demonstrating and improving efficiencies, while addressing operational, environmental and economic issues through integrated, collaborative efforts with researchers and educators.

The CURBI feasibility study is also looking at anaerobic digestion, high-efficiency direct combustion and other "stackable" renewable energy technologies, so that waste products from one system can be used by another. This would increase the overall efficiency of the systems and make using biomass even more attractive.

Michael Hoffmann, CUAES director, notes that CURBI's harvest of energy from on-hand resources at Cornell's many operations -- including some 8,000 tons of organic waste that is generated by Cornell annually -- could be a model not only for the state but for the country.

"We are in a unique position to use input streams that are readily available," says Hoffmann. "Also, the interest of research faculty and extension experts from many different departments see this as an opportunity to further their research, teaching and outreach programs in bioenergy. In partnership with others in the private and public sector, we have the intellectual and operational capacity to do this right and be a model for the state, the region and the nation."

CURBI involves faculty and staff from several departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Environmental Compliance and Sustainability Office, and the Department of Utilities and Energy Management.

Lauren Chambliss is assistant director for communications at the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Blaine Friedlander