Eastern Kentucky University is launching a new alternative-fuels research program in tandem with a San Diego energy firm that will look at producing diesel — and potentially jet fuel — from plant matter.
Eventually, officials hope to use EKU's research as a springboard to start a production plant that would be based in Clark County and run by the firm General Atomics.
"I'm very excited about the chance that we have to deal with some of these energy issues and come up with some real solutions that will move the ball forward," said U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, who secured $4 million in federal funding to jump-start the research program.
In addition to that $4 million, Gov. Steve Beshear said on Monday he will recommend that the state kick in $200,000 in agricultural research funds, $350,000 from Appalachian Regional Commission grants and $100,000 in county agriculture board contributions to the project.
EKU will establish a Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies — to be nicknamed CRAFT — that will be spearheaded by three professors from the agriculture and economics departments.
Their research will piggyback on work done by General Atomics, a San Diego-based division of General Dynamics. The company uses algae in large tanks to break down cellulosic material.
The main goal of the first phase of the project, said EKU President Doug Whitlock, is for researchers to determine what type of non-food plant materials — such as wood, tobacco, cornstalks or switch grass — is most efficiently broken down and easily converted into biodiesel.
Once that happens, General Atomics will invest in a production plant in Clark County, said William Davison, vice president of the company's advanced process system division.
It's unclear how many jobs such a plant would employ or how much fuel it would produce. Those questions will be largely answered by the results of the next year's worth of research, Davison said. But the company expects to make a "significant investment" that could be in the tens of millions of dollars, he said.
"We think we have the right researchers. And General Atomics agrees with that," said Harry Moberly Jr., an EKU vice president who also is a Democratic state representative and House budget chairman. "This is something that can be done."
Chandler said the project is worthwhile for many reasons.
"Not only does this project have the opportunity to make a big difference in Kentucky agriculture, it has the opportunity to put Kentuckians to work — we're always for that — and it has the opportunity to help the world environmentally," he said.
The EKU biofuel project will be different from two energy-related research efforts conducted through the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research.
That center is working with Nicholasville-based Alltech Inc. to see how the fermenting of plant cellulose could be made into fuels, said the center's director, Rodney Andrews. Another project uses algae to scrub coal power plants to reduce emissions.
"There are distinct differences in the programs," Andrews said.