March 25, 2008

Cornell to Launch New Biofuels Lab

Print More

As corn becomes an increasingly popular ethanol source, the spotlight falls on the biofuels field as its researchers study how to convert crops like switchgrass and woody plants into energy. This is evident at Riley-Robb Hall, where the east wing is being converted into a new biofuels research laboratory. Prof. Larry Walker, biological and environmental engineering, is spearheading the large-scale project, slated for completion next January.
Walker received a $10 million grant from Empire State Development Cor­poration, with $6 million going towards the east wing renovation and the other $4 million to equip the new laboratory with incubators, fermentors and other machinery necessary to allow Cornell to convert cellulosic material, like switchgrass and other perennial grasses, into ethanol,from start to finish. [img_assist|nid=29089|title=Burst of energy|desc=The former agricultural engineering, power and machinery lab is being turned into a new biofuels research laboratory.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“We can do what we call pretreatment of the materials to make this material more amenable to enzymatic biodegradation,” said Walker. “We have the capability of generating the enzymes needed to convert the biomass into fermentable sugars. We will then have the capability of taking the fermentable sugars to ethanol, butanol and other biofuels.”
Walker emphasized the importance of ethanol as one of the few renewable energy sources that can directly replace gasoline and the fact that by 2025, about 80 percent of ethanol production will come not from corn, but from cellulose materials, those primarily studied at the current biofuels lab on campus.
In fact, using corn as an ethanol source has come under scrutiny as it gains more media exposure. For example, Katherine McEachern ’09, president of KyotoNOW!, stated in an e-mail that the organization was “glad that this lab is focused on developing cellulosic ethanol and biofuel, not corn-based ethanol, which has many environmental and social problems.”
The new laboratory has also helped attract a new faculty member, Prof. Lars Angenent from Washington University in St. Louis, who will start at Cornell this fall. Walker and others in the department are also working on a master of engineering program in biofuels and bioenergy, in addition to continually seeking interested undergraduate and graduate students for the current research program.
“Certainly we’ve been trying to recruit new graduate students for the program. Graduate students are attracted by good facilities and good equipment, so that’s definitely a benefit for us,” said Prof. Beth Ahner, biological and environmental engineering, one of the faculty members moving into the new space. “The overall goal is renewable energy, and sustainable ways to use agricultural products to generate energy for human use.”
According to Walker, this lab will significantly advance Cornell’s biofuel laboratory infrastructure by consolidating all relevant labs, which are currently scattered; these labs range from those in biological and environmental engineering to plant sciences, applied and engineering physics, molecular biology and genetics and microbiology.
This multidisciplinary approach of the lab “plays to the strength that we have here at Cornell,” Walker said. “By and large, Cornell is very good at suppressing barriers between departments and getting faculties from different disciplines to work together on strategic research areas. This is a real strength of Cornell University.”
Earlier this month, Cornell received another $1 million to reinforce the multi-departmental biofuels research; the biomass research grant jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy supports work that links nanobiotechnology to biofuels in enzymatic conversion processes. Additional funding for biofuels research at Cornell also comes from the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation.
The increasing opportunities for funding reflect the public’s growing recognition of biofuels as potential solutions to current environmental and energy problems. Faculty members have also seen more interest from undergraduates.
“I’d gotten one request this week from someone who wanted to work in the biofuel lab,” said Ahner. “I teach a sophomore-level course [BEE 251: Engineering for a Sustainable Society] and we do talk about biofuels there, and students seem very excited about it.”
Upon hearing of the new lab, other students were also enthusiastic about its presence.
Carmen Iao ’09, president of the Cornell chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, stated in an e-mail: “The tools that this lab will provide Cornell will definitely help it become more prominent in the field of biofuels research, an urgent and necessary area of renewable energy.”