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UofL's Conn Center to grow industrial hemp and kenaf for energy research

Industrial hemp and kenaf research crops will be grown at Conn Center's Phoenix House on Eastern Parkway.

The University of Louisville’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research will plant two varieties of industrial hemp and a strain of kenaf on the Belknap Campus.

The planting is to demonstrate “energy crops” at the center’s Phoenix House office and living laboratory. These crops support biofuels research at the Conn Center utilizing Kentucky-grown plants as part of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program.

For 2017, Center researchers are looking at specific ways hemp and kenaf, a fiber plant native to east-central Africa, can fulfill energy needs, define new markets and be a source for drop-in replacement for fibers, biofuels and other chemical production. Kenaf and hemp are highly adaptable to Kentucky and are being evaluated as a high yield, industrially relevant economic development resource.

“The Conn Center continues to examine the potential for unusual answers to renewable energy questions,” said Greg Postel, interim president of UofL. “The University of Louisville takes pride in the ability of our faculty and researchers to innovate using local resources for the good of the state. It gives people hope for the future.”

Jagannadh Satyavolu, theme leader for biofuels and biomass conversion at Conn Center, is working with Noppadon Sathitsuksanoh, assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Speed School, and undergraduate and graduate students to find uses for hurd, the inner core of the hemp plant stem, which is a by-product after the outer fibers of the hemp are removed. Hurd has potential for use in fuels, chemicals and polymers.

“We’ve been amazed at this research direction,” said Hank Conn, center benefactor and board member. “So many people have expressed their support, particularly the students. They really see the vast potential of industrial hemp and related crops for providing a revitalized economy that could be unprecedented for the state. Inspiring future generations is what we have always hoped to do.”

Support for this program comes from Hank and Rebecca Conn, who recognize the value of the center’s research to stimulate the bioeconomy. Currently, the Conn Center is pursuing three hemp-to-energy directions:

• Convert hemp into high value, functionalized carbons, with applications such as catalyst supports and energy storage media

• Transform hemp seed oil into biocompatible resins for 3-D printed medical implants

• Extract sugars from hemp and convert them into diesel additives and other valuable chemicals

These projects include four faculty and four student and post-doctoral researchers. In less than a year, their work has resulted in two invention disclosures with patents and publications to follow.

The Conn Center fosters the development of transformational concepts and accelerates transition from lab to pre-commercial scale. The Center maintains unique, state-of-the-art facilities for advancing scalable manufacturing R&D of biofuels, value added chemicals and biomass to energy and efficiency solutions.

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