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$10m Grant to Aid Biofuel Development at Cornell University

To help advance technologies that convert perennial grasses and woody biomass to ethanol, Cornell professor of biological and environmental engineering Larry Walker will use a $10 million grant from the Empire State Development Corp. to upgrade Cornell's industrial biotechnology laboratories. He also will serve an official adviser to a new biomass-to-ethanol demonstration facility in Rochester, N.Y.

The grant will be used to renovate laboratories in Riley Robb Hall and to purchase fermenters, incubators and state-of-the-art analytical equipment. It also will improve researchers' abilities to overcome the physical, chemical and biological barriers to liberating sugars from such energy crops as switchgrass, miscanthus and other perennial grasses as well as woody biomass, and to biologically convert these sugars into such biofuels as ethanol, butanol or hydrogen.

"Although corn-based ethanol production is the current state-of-the-art technology, the future development, success and sustainability of the U.S. ethanol industry hinges on developing and converting perennial grasses and woody biomass, cellulosic biomass, to ethanol," he says. Walker is also director of the 14-state Northeast Sun Grant Institute of Excellence, which researches the use of plant biomass in energy and chemical production.

"Cellulosic ethanol production could be economically advantageous for New York state because we know how to grow grasses and woody biomass, and we know how to implement biotechnology. These activities are core to the industrial biotechnology component to the evolving New York biofuels sector," Walker says.

In a related initiative, Walker is collaborating with Mascoma Corp. and Genencor to develop a $14 million cellulosic ethanol pilot-plant in Rochester funded by New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The plant will convert such products as paper sludge, wood chips, switchgrass and corn stover (the leaves and stalks that are left in a field after harvest) to ethanol.

"Cornell shares Mascoma's objectives to demonstrate and refine the cellulose-to-ethanol process and in determining the most appropriate feedstock strategies to support viable and sustainable commercial scale energy crop initiatives," says Walker. "By collaborating with Mascoma, Cornell and its master of engineering students will gain key insights into both the requirements and operation of a demonstration-scale biofuels plant."

Working with Mascoma, Walker adds, also will allow Cornell researchers to apply its research to so-called energy crops grown in New York as well as to have access to vital operating data to use to refine modeling techniques that are important for the growth of agricultural-based bio-industries. The plant also will work with International Paper, Clarkson University and the National Resources Defense Council.

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