After an increase in funding, the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research at the University of Louisville is exploring the economics and science of commercializing industrial hemp. Henry “Hank” Conn, who has committed millions of dollars to fund the center and recently provided $160,000 to jumpstart hemp research said it’s a new line of work for the center but it matches well with its existing examination of biofuels, catalysts, and other chemical applications.

Additional underwriting will come from a large donation established more than 30 years ago by the late Ray Schnur Sr., a member of the first Speed graduating class in 1928 who operated two companies in Louisville. He made an initial endowment gift of $100,000, now more than $350,000, to fund technology purchases for Speed’s electrical engineering department. However, Schnur’s son Ray Jr. and his family asked that the annual proceeds be directed now to Conn’s hemp effort, a move that will soon take effect. “Hemp is the coming thing,” said the younger Schnur, who is 81 and the stepfather of David Barhorst, a Louisville developer and founder of Kentucky Hemp Ventures. Schnur said creating jobs from hemp will “help coal miners and tobacco farmers around the state.”

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture launched a pilot program under authority of the 2014 federal farm bill, which allows states that enact laws to permit hemp growing and research. It has given rise to several businesses that are working with selected farmers approved by the state to create foods and products from hemp fibers and oils. University of Kentucky agronomists have focused on aspects of growing and processing the crop. At Conn, scientists are looking at the potential after the harvest, for pelletizing hemp for biofuel, creating catalysts for various chemical applications and using cellulose as a fuel source, said Andrew Marsh, the center’s assistant director. “This whole thing just took off,” Marsh stated, after the center planted a test plot of hemp in August. Some Speed students did a literature search of hemp research, and Schnur stepped up, offering to redirect the endowment at Conn. To drive their work, center officials assembled a forum in early December with more than three dozen growers, processors, and business people.

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