UK gets $6.9 million federal grant to help reduce reliance on imported oil

The University of Kentucky has received a $6.9 million federal grant to help reduce America's reliance on imported oil, one of eight awards in the country.

"It's going to be big," said UK's principal investigator, Sue Nokes, a professor in the department of biosystems and agricultural engineering. Her department will be working with other UK colleges and outside groups including the University of Wisconsin, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Agricultural Research Services.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced Thursday that UK will receive the grant.

The bulk of the grant will be used to study the process of growing switchgrass and miscanthus to create biofuel for farm machinery. CNH, an international manufacturer of agricultural machinery, will provide the majority of the 20 percent matching money required to receive the federal grant, Nokes said. Switchgrass and miscanthus are commonly used as feed, Nokes said.

She said it's already known that those plants can be grown, stored and used for fuel, but the grant will allow researchers to see whether they can be used on a large scale.

"We know that all the pieces work," she said. "We haven't put it all together."

Initially, work at UK will begin in the lab but, over the four-year term of the grant, graduate students and full-time technicians will be added to take the work to the field, she said.

Someday, she said, you might be able to fuel up your Toyota with switchgrass-based fuel, she said.

"That is the ultimate goal," she said, but probably not in four years.

The award is one of eight research and development projects nationally — for a total of $47 million — that will support the production of biofuels, bioenergy and biobased products.

Nokes said the process, which began last fall, was "very competitive."

But, she said, "the team that we put together is first class. It is going to be fun working with these people."

The UK project and others will play an important role in reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil.

"The projects that we are announcing today will spur innovation in bioenergy by developing renewable resources that produce energy more efficiently and do so in a sustainable way," said Vilsack, in a release.

"Advances made through this research will help boost rural economies by developing and testing new processing facilities and profitable, energy-rich crops that U.S. farmers and foresters will grow."

Chu said President Obama has set a national goal of reducing America's oil imports by one-third in a little more than a decade.