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New biofuel lab focuses on turning bales into barrels

Many experts believe America is facing a "Sputnik moment" -- the point at which solving the current energy crisis and reversing man-made climate change require massive research and development efforts on par with winning the space race in the 1960s.

Cornell made a giant leap toward that goal when researchers moved into the new $6 million Biofuels Research Laboratory (BRL) earlier this semester. Inside the 11,000-square-foot facility, Larry Walker, professor of biological and environmental engineering, and a group of engineers, scientists and students from across the university are examining sustainable and economical biofuel production.

"Under a single roof, we can perform all the major steps required to make biofuel," said Walker, director of the Cornell-based Northeast Sun Grant Institute of Excellence. "Other schools have bits and pieces of the process or specialize in pretreatment, chemical conversion or cell wall analysis. In this lab, we can do it all."

In January, researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering began using the space, which was funded by a $10 million grant from the Empire State Development Corp. and replaces an agricultural engineering power and machinery lab in Riley Robb Hall. The Cornell team focuses on the creation of cellulosic ethanol -- a process that frees sugars from perennial grasses and woody biomass and biologically converts them into fuel.

"The highlight of the new lab is that multiple departments and multiple colleges are using it," Walker said. "That's been the underlying philosophy from the very beginning."

Unlike corn ethanol, which grew popular in recent years as gas prices climbed, cellulosic ethanol is derived from such nonfood crops as switchgrass, sorghum and willow, so it has little effect on food prices. What's more, most of the feedstocks used in the biofuels lab can thrive on marginal lands that would go unused. Cellulosic ethanol, therefore, holds greater long-term promise than corn ethanol.

Walker has no doubt that the technology already exists to turn a bale of switchgrass into a barrel of biofuel. But, he says, the challenge is to generate the fuel in a way that's efficient, cost-effective for producers and consumers, and sustainable. Solving the problem requires a systemic analysis of biofuel production -- from using sophisticated microscopes to study enzymatic processes at the nanoscale to transforming plant sugars into ethanol in a 150-liter fermentation reactor.

The BRL is arrayed like a factory. At its north end, large bales of raw material are unloaded. The biomass is then size-reduced and pretreated by thermochemical reactors that liberate some sugars and make the remaining solids easier to break down. From there, the feedstocks move south through the lab and undergo enzymatic conversion, which captures the remaining simple sugars. All of the sugars are then fermented into ethanol, butanol and other biofuels. Cornell researchers study every step to determine how to better engineer the processes for converting plants into bioenergy.

For example, plant geneticist Stephen Kresovich, Cornell's vice provost for the life sciences, plans to examine the genetic and phenotypic diversity of select grasses in the lab. These studies promise to help researchers identify and create specific varieties of sorghum and other plant material best suited for biofuel conversion.

"[The lab] provides Cornell faculty and students the opportunity to strategically understand the genetic mechanisms that affect plant composition and yield," Kresovich said. "It will take this level of collaboration to make biofuels development a reality in New York and beyond."

Pat Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Genomic Diversity, said Cornell researchers are nearing the goal of sustainable and economical biofuel production, and he was heartened by the Obama administration's apparent support of bioenergy research. "A lot of us are wildly hopeful," he said.

The BRL includes numerous energy-saving features, including sensors to extinguish lights and limit ventilation in unoccupied rooms. It's currently under review by the U.S. Green Building Council for certification as an eco-friendly structure. SWBR Architects of Rochester, N.Y., designed the facility, and LeChase Construction Services, also of Rochester, performed the renovations.

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

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