SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Larry, what is the primary research that you're doing and why are you doing it here at Cornell?
LARRY WALKER: Well, generally I would tell people that I'm interested in things that are green and slimy. In reality, what I do is I take plant materials-- trees, grasses-- and I'm interested in converting these materials into energy and industrial chemicals.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: And what are you doing with those industrial chemicals. Obviously it's for fuel.
LARRY WALKER: Fuel is one component of it, and we're working on a lot of activities around cellulosic ethanol. As you can imagine, this second generation technology is getting a lot of attention at the national level. And we like to think that New York state and Cornell in particular can play in the space. But in addition to producing ethanol, we can produce other biofuels, such as butanol, hydrogen, methane.
We can also begin to produce industrial chemicals, different types of organic acids that can be used for other industrial purposes.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Now, this process of making biofuels, is it any different from what a brewer does to make beer? Or cognac?
LARRY WALKER: Ah, you're basically tapping into my roots. So I come from old moon shiners. But yes, what we are looking at is taking sugars-- in this case we're taking sugars that we extract from grasses-- and we're using a yeast, a baker yeast, or some other microorganism, to convert these sugars into ethanol.
And so we're looking at doing the same thing to produce a premium bourbon or cognac, but we need to do it cheaper. So a major component of our activities is how do we produce the sugars cheaply from the grasses, and then how we convert the sugars into ethanol and other biofuels, but to do it very cheaply. A premium bourbon is going to go for about $100 per gallon. We're trying to produce ethanol for about $1.50 to $2 per gallon.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Now there's also a time factor here when you produce a good beer or a good whiskey.
LARRY WALKER: Exactly.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: It takes a long time to do. Can you explain what kind of time frame you're looking at?
LARRY WALKER: Very, very much so. If I'm looking at producing a good cognac that might have a 19-20% ethanol content, I can afford to let that go on for six months. I'm not going to be doing that with a commercial ethanol facility where I need to get this done in two days. So the whole question of how fast we carry out the process and to what degree we carry out the process is key to the economics of making cellulosic biofuels.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Now, can you explain the difference between cellulosic biofuels and ethanol that we're used to seeing at the gas station right now.
LARRY WALKER: Ah, so the ethanol that you see today is coming from corn. And it's basically coming from the starch fraction of corn. And starch is a polymer of glucose. So there is an enzymatic process in corn ethanol that de-polymerized the starch into glucose, and then it's just going into a fermentation process with yeast to produce the ethanol.
When we look at cellulosic materials, we're actually looking at two sugar stripes. So you have the cellulose in grasses and trees. And cellulose is a polymer of glucose. You also have hemicellulose. And cellulose is the polymer of the mixture of five carbon sugars, primarily xylose.
So when I look at a dry ton of switch grass or wood chips, I'm looking does this material have the potential of giving me 70% of that material converted to sugars.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Is this more sustainable if you're using-- obviously we're using today corn. And you're talking about using grasses and other biomass material.
LARRY WALKER: We believe that it's more sustainable, and for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that you have to apply to grow this grass is considerably less than what we do with corn. The water inputs are a bit lower. We can also grow grasses and polyculture. There's no need to focus on monoculture. And with polyculture the sustainability benefits higher yields because of polyculture cultivation, less pesticide, herbicide, need it so there are some benefits that we can gain.
That's on the production side of that. The conversion side of that very much depends on the mix of technology. We know that there are certain conversion technologies that are not going to lead to sustainable production. We've known for a long time that we can use concentrated acids at elevated temperature to convert the cellulose into sugars. But you've got to recycle the acids and there's some other environmental issues that we would be dealing with if we were looking at concentrated acid in the process.
So it depends on how you configure the system, whether the raw materials, how you grow those raw materials, how you handle those raw materials, and eventually how you convert those raw materials. So there's a lot of parameters that you're manipulating. It's not as straightforward as some of the critics would have you think.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Well, I'm going to switch gears for a moment and talk about Sun Grant, because Cornell University is a Sun Grant institution. Can you describe what Sun Grant is and the other institutions, and how it fits into the puzzle of creating the future ethanol for cars.
LARRY WALKER: Ah, OK. The Sun Grant initiative is near and dear to my heart for a couple reasons. One is that the Sun Grant is very much about regional focus on biofuels and bio-products.
There's a tendency to think of the national bioenergy initiative being about Midwestern corn production and corn conversion to ethanol, but other parts of the country can play a very active role in cellulosic materials and cellulosic ethanol. But that blend of cellulosic material is going to vary from region to region. And we like to think that the Northeast is a place where we produce cellulose.
New York is very good at producing woody biomass, it's very good at producing grasses. So why not New York? Why not the Northeast? So that regional focus is very important with the Sun Grant Initiative. The other key thing for the Sun Grant is engaging land grant institutions. Land Grant institutions over the past couple of hundred years have been very active-- and moving past 100 years-- have been very active in economic development in rural communities.
We feel that land grants can play a role with economic development, national energy security, environmental quality issues through biofuels and bio-products. So that's the other angle with Sun Grant we're very, very excited about.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: And that leads me to this question. What are the industries that New York, and possibly the other Northeastern states, can enjoy from this kind of research? What do we have to look forward to?
LARRY WALKER: We tend to look at the bio ethanol biofuels as a subset of activity that falls under this category of bio economy. And one reason that we're very excited about the cellulosic is that you need to deal with the distributed production system. Unlike corn, cellulosic biomass is not very dense.
So we're not going to be moving this material across the country by rail, by barge. You're going to be pulling material from a 35 to 50 mile radius. So you're looking at local production, distributor production, if you're going to produce [INAUDIBLE] capacity.
That means that you're going to be looking at plants scattered around a state like New York. They're going to be actively involved in producing biofuels. These plants are going to generate high income jobs. They're going to possibly service community, depending on how we structure the plants and how we structure the feedstock movements within communities.
So we like to think that the biofuels is one aspect of economic development. Now, if I produce these sugars from cellulosic materials, I can also begin to produce other industrial chemicals and other consumer products. I could also begin to look at genetically engineering crops that may produce a polymer that's very important for industry and still have the residues of the switch grass, or the reed canary grass, or whatever, to move into bioenergy.
So you begin to think of all kinds of possibilities to create what I would call industrial ecologies. You begin to also look at feedback loops where waste materials that would be produced can be used to produce other products. And so spent solids that may come through the process may be dry and used as a energy fuel for a boiler producing steam and electricity.
So you begin to think about all kinds of possibilities. The bottom line is coming up with systems that are economical, that are sustainable, and that fits into the social fabric of rural communities. And so that's where all of the excitement comes trying to envision what these systems might be and then actually make them happen.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Making them happen is important, but we're in an era of economic turmoil. There's no doubt about that. But what can the federal government do, or even the state government do, to bring this to reality?
LARRY WALKER: If you look at the history of technology we've always had major innovation and creativity at times of economic chaos. It goes back 150 years ago when we started looking at the advent of the oil industry. By the time the oil industry was getting involved, you had civil war, you had mechanization taking place in agriculture, natural selection as a theme of science was taking off.
So when you have this type of disruption, that's where innovation comes into place. And if you look at some of the drivers for this disruptions that we're seeing today-- climate change is a major issue, national energy security, environmental quality. All these factors play out very nicely with biofuels.
We feel that the bio economy is going to generate jobs. We feel that biofuels are going to help us get off of imported oil. We think that there's a place for it to help us deal with climate change. So I'm actually very optimistic that through good research development we can address some of the challenges in producing biofuels and bio-products, and in doing so creating economic opportunities.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Is there anything you'd like to say that maybe I haven't touched on?
LARRY WALKER: Yes. And just to remind us is that Cornell University is an educational institution. And one of the most exciting part of running the biofuels research laboratory is the undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs who are coming into the laboratory with so much energy and enthusiasm in driving the innovation. It's just really exciting to be doing first-rate research and bringing young people along.
So as I tell my young colleagues is that another 10, 15 years, I'm going to retire to the South of France way up on the beach and I'm going to leave all the problems for them to solve.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Now speaking of resolving problems, I have the largest, probably the biggest global question to ask. Do you use a BlackBerry or do you use an iPhone?
LARRY WALKER: Neither. I'm using a Verizon Palm.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Palm?
LARRY WALKER: Yes, and it has served me well. And I only give out my cell number to a very selective folks. My wife, my kids.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Well, thank you very much, Larry. I appreciate your talking with us today about biofuels.
LARRY WALKER: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
BLAINE FRIEDLANDER: Thanks.
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An interview with Dr. Larry P. Walker, a national leader in biofuels technology and professor at Cornell University.