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Fall 2009
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Short Reports

Biofuels Research Lab Opens in Riley-Robb

By Susan Lang

A June 23 ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official opening of the Biofuels Research Laboratory in Riley-Robb Hall. Researchers had already moved into the $6 million, 11,000-square-foot lab and begun work there in January. The new lab is the hub of Cornell’s research and development of sustainable and economical biofuels derived from nonfood crops like switchgrass and sorghum.

Sun World's Michael Striem, left, and
CALS' Bruce Reisch
Rob Way, CALS Communications

Attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony are (from left) Kevin McCabe, Kevin McLaughlin, Professor Larry Walker, Dean Susan Henry, Commissioner of NYS Agriculture and Markets Patrick Hooker ’84, and Cornell President David Skorton.

“The Biofuels Research Laboratory catapults Cornell to the forefront of renewable energy research and becomes the centerpiece of the university’s broad portfolio of work on cellulosic biofuel and bioproducts,” says Dean Susan A. Henry. She points out that many people will benefit from the work of the lab. “New York farmers will see new opportunities to grow the plant material used as inputs, workers will see job growth in the bioenergy sector, and we all gain from a more sustainable energy supply.”

The Cornell researchers are creating cellulosic ethanol—a process that frees sugars from perennial grasses and woody biomass, then biologically converts that material into fuel. Unlike corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol is derived from such nonfood crops as switchgrass, sorghum, and willow, so it has little effect on food prices. In addition, most of the stocks used in the biofuels lab can thrive on marginal lands that normally would go unused. Cellulosic ethanol, therefore, holds greater long-term promise than corn ethanol.

Larry Walker, the principal investigator and professor of biological and environmental engineering, says the challenge is to generate the fuel in a way that’s efficient, cost-effective for producers and consumers, and sustainable. The Biofuels Research Laboratory allows researchers to do that by conducting 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.