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KNOXVILLE — A federal initiative now before the Senate Appropriations Committee could position the University of Tennessee at the forefront of research and development in biologically-based energy.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted July 17 to include $700,000 in planning funds in its markup of the fiscal 2002 agriculture appropriations bill for the Sun Grant Initiative. If funded, the bio-based energy initiative is expected to enhance the nation’s ability to produce renewable fuels efficiently.

Originally proposed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., an added benefit of the initiative is enhancement of the nation’s rural economies through the production of farm commodities for nonfood uses and value-added products.

The proposed Sun Grant Initiative is grounded in the nation’s land-grant university system, and the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station is one of four proposed regional research centers.

Other centers include South Dakota State University as the lead institution, Oklahoma State University and Oregon State University. Two more regional centers may be named later.

Dr. Tom Klindt, associate dean of the UT Agricultural Experiment Station, said renewable fuels such as ethanol are among the best-known nonfood uses for farm commodities, but the potential exists for many other bio-based products, including pharmaceuticals, building materials, bio-plastics, textiles, lubricants, solvents, and adhesives.

“At UT we are already involved in bio-fuel, bio-plastic and textile research,” Klindt said. “The Sun Grant Initiative will invest in continued and new research into alternative uses for agricultural commodities. Independent farm families and their rural communities will benefit from the results of that research.”

Agriculture and natural resource industries are vital cogs in the Tennessee and national economies, he said.

“Expanding the number of bio-based products will enhance both rural and metropolitan economies” Klindt said. “It’s part of the mission of land-grant institutions to meet the critical needs of all our citizens.”

The initiative would be coordinated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, are named as cooperating research institutions.

Plans for the Sun Grant Initiative include establishing annual base funding for research and Extension programs at each regional center and establishing competitive research and educational grant programs.

If fully funded in FY 2003, each regional center would be awarded multimillion-dollar budgets to fund programs that address the nation’s need for alternative energy sources while at the same time bolstering rural economies through the development of value-added products.