Philanthropist promotes biochar research with $5M gift

To help address energy needs and help farmers in developing countries, Cornell announced today (Oct. 13) a $5 million gift on behalf of philanthropist Yossie Hollander and his family to the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF).

These resources will be used to support biomass and biochar research. Biochar is a charcoal-like material that is produced when organic material -- such as grass, corn husks, sawdust or even chicken manure -- is heated at low temperatures in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis).

The gift provides five years of funding for a multidisciplinary team of scientists led by Johannes Lehmann, a leading authority on biochar, Cornell associate professor of soil science and a member of CCSF's faculty advisory committee.

The funding will support his project on village-scale pyrolysis to produce liquid biofuels.

"At most universities, one must interact with many departments to conduct multidisciplinary research. The Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future is a focused group, acting as an agent to bring the capabilities of the university together in one place," said Hollander, a successful high-tech entrepreneur. Hollander is a member of the management committee of the Weizmann Institute of Science and a founding director of Our Energy Policy Foundation, which provides input into the development of U.S. energy policy through a broad, nonpartisan dialogue.

"Cornell has a tradition of solving current urgent problems, and its strength in agriculture and engineering is critical to this work," Hollander said.

"The Hollanders' generous support will enable this distinguished multidisciplinary team to carry out research that promises to bring enormous benefit to our planet and its inhabitants," said Cornell President David Skorton.

Frank DiSalvo, director of CCSF, added: "These funds will be used to support a project of strategic importance to sustainability research at Cornell and of even greater importance to villages in poor countries, where small-scale pyrolysis can make a difference in local energy production and provide a path for survival in an oil-constrained world. This gift provides remarkable support for this project at a most critical point in its growth and development."

With the increase in global demand for oil and associated costs, people from developing countries are at a serious risk of losing access to liquid fuels and other energy resources. Lehmann proposes slow pyrolysis to generate biofuels and biochar for communities in the developing world. Amazonian Indians used biochar to enrich their land by adding it to the soil. Lehmann will take the project to Kenya to implement a village-scale pyrolysis facility.

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Blaine Friedlander