March 12, 2009

Univ. Turns Waste Into Renewable Energy

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What began as an idea in an e-mail two years ago is now the The Cornell University Renewable Bioenergy Initiative, seeking to utilize everything from dining hall waste to animal manure in order to create renewable energy sources on campus.
Mark Hoffman, director of Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, spearheaded this initiative, looking to keep Cornell committed to its sustainable efforts. According to Hoffman, Cornell oversees over 10,000 acres of land as a living laboratory that supports the research and teaching community. This land is also a rich source of biomass that can be converted into renewable biofuels.
According to Drew Lewis, CURBI Manager Operations, Cornell produces roughly 8,000 tons of various organic waste per year from dining halls, greenhouses and animal manures.
“We have a great deal of available biomass. The question that remains is how do we most efficiently utilize that biomass and how we do it in the right way,”Lewis said.
CURBI technologies seek to convert this waste without the use of oxygen. The program houses four main technologies involved in this conversion, which enables Cornell to cater to diverse materials 
“Having many different complementary bioenergy approaches under one roof is especially intriguing because we have in our landscapes multiple feedstocks that require differential treatment,” said Prof. Johannes Lehmann, crop and soil sciences.
Lehmann is an expert in the field of Pyrolysis, one of the four main technologies involved. Pyrolysis refers to the heating of biomass without oxygen. This process produces biochar that — when added to soil — removes the harmful greenhouse gas, carbon, from the atmosphere. From biomass production to energy generation, Lehmann studies the entire life-cycle of Pyrolysis  in order to get a comprehensive look at the environmental benefits and costs of the technology.
“Cornell could take the lead in the academic landscape in the U.S. with a comprehensive [renewable energy] scheme,” Lehmann said.
In terms of practical applications of renewable fuels produced by CURBI technology, Hoffman explained that Cornell’s steam plant currently uses coal, which is not only costly, but environmentally detrimental. This steam plant will be converted into a more sustainable structure later this year by installing two turbine engines, roughly equivalent in size to those in a 747 airplane. These turbines would run at all times, producing electricity for 75 percent of the campus. However, these turbines need fuel to run. A small portion of that gas could come from CURBI technologies, which would translate into a substantial savings in fuel costs.
“We are very fortunate that there has been a convergence of interests to bring [CURBI] to a reality within the next few years,” Hoffman said.
Stephen T. Golding, executive vice president for finance and administration, has worked jointly with Hoffman to analyze the feasibility of the research and possible sources of funding from the State and the University.
“We continue to work with him, as we think of this as another example of Cornell as a living and learning laboratory,” Golding said.
According to Hoffman, the CURBI feasibility study is costing about $240,000. He hopes that it will be done within the next four months. The study is funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in partnership with Cornell.