A project aimed at helping Kentucky transition to a “new energy economy” has been awarded $20 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Kentucky was one of six jurisdictions chosen to receive a five-year Research Infrastructure Improvement Track 1 award from the NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). An additional $4 million in matching funds comes from Kentucky EPSCoR, which receives funding from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, bringing total funding for the project to $24 million.
Kentucky’s project, titled “Powering the Kentucky Bioeconomy for a Sustainable Future,” provides a major upgrade to the Commonwealth’s research infrastructure, with targeted investments at 10 Kentucky research and higher-education institutions. Its principal investigator is Rodney Andrews, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research.
“These investments will increase the number of students pursuing science and engineering careers, provide new state-of-the-art infrastructure that allows our institutions to continue to innovate and provide solutions for the energy needs of the Commonwealth, and to develop technologies that will result in jobs in the areas of our state most impacted by the changing energy landscape,” Andrews said.
The university announced the award at a news conference attended by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, State Rep. Rocky Adkins, UK President Eli Capilouto, and leaders from several other Kentucky universities.“I have been an ardent supporter of the EPSCoR program, which helps level the playing field for universities in states like ours to compete for federal R&D opportunities,” McConnell said.
“This particular EPSCoR grant funding will largely go towards building important energy research infrastructure at our state’s higher education institutions that we hope will translate into positive applications in the energy, industrial and environmental fields. Perhaps as important as the research itself is that this funding will help the Commonwealth develop a talented workforce trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to the benefit of our state and its economy.”
Beshear stressed the broader impacts of the project, which include increasing the number of students from under-represented groups completing degrees in STEM disciplines, with particular focus on first-generation students from Appalachia and rural areas.
“This is innovative research that showcases and solidifies Kentucky’s focus on STEM programs,” Beshear said. “We know that students and workers who excel in these areas create dynamic opportunities for themselves and the Commonwealth. Forward-looking programs such as this will help us to train and retain highly skilled workers, and to attract high-tech companies and jobs to Kentucky.”
Capilouto praised the project, citing its potential to have impact far beyond Kentucky’s borders. “The challenges facing Kentucky’s energy future and economy are ultimately the same challenges that confront our nation and the entire world,” Capilouto said.
“This project demonstrates the critical importance of academic research in designing and implementing sustainable solutions. With this investment from EPSCoR the University of Kentucky and our colleagues at other state institutions will be able to provide real leadership to meet these global challenges, while helping to ensure an economically vital, sustainable future for Kentucky.”
The project’s overarching goal is to discover and develop engineered bio-systems for energy, environmental and industrial applications, focusing on three intersecting “research pillars”: Advanced Bio-Inspired Membrane Technologies, Chemical Biology for Advanced Materials, and Electrochemical Energy Storage. The work is to take place within the framework of an inclusive, statewide program that encourages interdisciplinary problem-solving across the biological, chemical and engineering sciences.
“This award will fuel biotechnology innovation in Kentucky to help transform the state’s energy economy and build a strong well-prepared workforce,” said Timothy Van Reken,
EPSCoR program director for the NSF.Other institutions involved in the project are the University of Louisville, Kentucky State University, Northern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, represented by the Big Sandy and Bluegrass CTCs.
The award will provide support for 150 jobs over the next five years. These positions include 45 faculty participants, the hiring of 10 new faculty, four postdoctoral researchers, 25 full-time research graduate students, 10 part-time technical and administrative staff and 13 undergraduate student researchers, with the remaining positions to be filled as the project progresses.