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CUAES' Living-Learning Laboratory Models Bioenergy Systems

By Lauren Chambliss

The Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES) has launched an ambitious plan to use 57 campus waste streams and other biomass resources to generate bioenergy to help fuel the campus. Known as the Cornell University Renewable Bioenergy Initiative (CURBI), the plan seeks to maximize the use of readily available resources from farms, forests, dining halls, and other operations in and around the Cornell campus to produce energy that is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

The CURBI concept focuses on providing a leading-edge research, education, and outreach platform, as well as renewable energy production. CURBI envisions generating power and fuels from materials ranging from animal bedding and switchgrass to vegetable oil from deep fryers.

One of the technologies included in CURBI—slow pyrolysis—was recently touted by Daniel Kammen '84, a senior policy advisor to President Barack Obama's presidential campaign, as a carbon- friendly waste-management solution that is one of the "top five" world-saving innovations that should be further developed. No commercial slow-pyrolysis operation of any size yet exists in the United States. Slow pyrolysis generates both energy and a valuable soil amendment called biochar—which, when added to soil, sequesters carbon. Johannes Lehmann, a professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, is one of the world's leading experts in biochar.

CUAES manages and operates numerous CALS research farms, facilities, and greenhouses in and around campus, including several thousand acres of diverse agricultural and forested land. It also handles the 8,000 tons of organic waste generated by Cornell annually, which is currently turned into high-grade compost. CUAES agricultural operations director, Drew Lewis, MS '03, who is spearheading CURBI, says several bioenergy technologies are being considered with the idea that housing complementary systems would offer a unique opportunity for comparison, demonstration, and improved efficiency, while addressing current operational, environmental, and economic issues through integrated and collaborative efforts with researchers and educators.

The CURBI feasibility study is also looking at anaerobic digestion and high-efficiency direct combustion and other "stackable" renewable energy technologies, so that waste product from one system can be utilized by the next.

"We are in a unique position to become a true living-learning laboratory, using input streams that are readily available, plus the interest of research faculty and extension experts from many different departments who see this as an opportunity to further their research, teaching, and outreach programs in bioenergy," says CUAES director Michael Hoffmann. "In partnership with others in the private and public sector, we have the intellectual and operational capacity to be a model for the state, the region, and the nation."