Developing Renewable Energy at the New Biofuels Research Laboratory
In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama pledged his administration's commitment to a diversified energy future. "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories," he said.
Cornell's $6 million, cutting-edge Biofuels Research Laboratory (BRL)—which opened in January, the same month as Obama's speech—will go a long way toward fulfilling the president's promise for next-generation renewable fuels that are environmentally sustainable and economical.
Inside the 11,000-square-foot space, Larry Walker, professor of biological and environmental engineering, and a team of engineers, scientists, and students across Cornell are studying every phase of biofuel production, a method that frees sugars from perennial grasses and woody biomass and biologically converts them into fuels like ethanol, butanol, and hydrogen.
"Under a single roof, we can perform all the major steps required to transform plant matter into biofuel," Walker says. "Other schools have bits and pieces of the process or specialize in pretreatment, chemical conversion, or cell-wall analysis. In this lab, we can do it all."
The BRL, funded by a $10 million grant from the Empire State Development Corporation, replaces a former agricultural engineering and machinery lab in the east wing of Riley Robb Hall. At its north end, the facility accommodates large bales of raw material from nonfood crops—plant matter like switchgrass, sorghum, willow, and other feedstocks that thrive in the Northeast climate and soils. There, the material is size-reduced and pretreated with thermochemical reactors that liberate some of the sugars and make the remaining solids easier to convert to additional sugars. After pretreatment, the feedstocks move south through the lab to undergo enzymatic conversion, which captures the remaining simple sugars. All of the sugars are then fermented into ethanol or other biofuels. In the BRL imaging laboratory, near the southern entrance, researchers employ sophisticated microscopes, cameras, and computer equipment to analyze single enzyme diffusion on cellulose fibers, and, in turn, to better engineer enzyme cocktails essential to converting plants into bioenergy.
With dozens of researchers dedicated to surmounting the scientific, technical, and economic barriers to sustainable biofuels production, Walker says Cornell is the ideal home for the Biofuels Research Laboratory.
"The highlight of the new lab is that multiple departments and multiple colleges are using it," Walker says. "That's been a philosophy from the very beginning. We have a range of faculty across many disciplines involved—and it will take this level of collaboration to make biofuels development a reality in New York and beyond."
SWBR Architects of Rochester, N.Y., designed the facility, and LeChase Construction Services, also of Rochester, performed the renovations.