CORVALLIS - Oregon State University will help lead a major national effort to reduce America's reliance upon imported fossil fuels, enhance our energy security and revitalize rural economies as part of the new Sun Grant Initiative that was just passed by Congress.

In the legislation, OSU was named one of five centers of excellence that will conduct research, education and outreach programs in the evolving field of "bioenergy," which uses sustainable and renewable agricultural products based on energy from the sun - instead of petroleum - for the direct production of fuels and a myriad of consumer products.

By 2007, plans call for up to $75 million a year to fund this ambitious new program.

The legislation was developed as an amendment, promoted by Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, to a general agricultural appropriations bill, and the effort also gained the support of Sen. Ron Wyden and Oregon's congressional delegation. Under the new plan, five land-grant universities and two national laboratories will split $25 million in 2005, $50 million in 2006 and $75 million in years 2007 through 2010, pending approval by Congress in releasing these funds.

The initiative taps into the existing scientific expertise and outreach concepts pioneered by the nation's land grant college system, and organizers say the new Sun Grant program can make a significant contribution towards America's energy crisis while providing a beacon of hope to farm families across the country who face sagging prices, uncertain demand for their crops and economic hardships.

"This is a major opportunity for OSU and our colleagues at other western universities to help solve some fairly serious energy problems and address the crisis in the agricultural sector at the same time," said Thayne Dutson, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU. "There's a lot we can contribute in this area with both research and outreach programs, and we're looking forward to working closely with our friends in agriculture, private industry, and the academic community to get the program moving as quickly as possible."

OSU will be the sole university representing a nine-state Western Region, which is to receive 20 percent of the funding. Other participants are Oklahoma State University, South Dakota State University, Cornell University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

OSU's leadership in this program will make it one of only two universities in the nation, along with Cornell University, that will now be designated as land, sea, space and sun grant institutions.

Oregon State University was built upon the foundation of the Morrill Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, which revolutionized higher education in the United States when it created the land grant college system. In 1868, the institution then known as Corvallis College was designated as "the agricultural college of the state of Oregon," and the same act ultimately spawned many of the nation's great public research universities.

Following in those historic footsteps, the Sun Grant initiative is designed to bring leadership, structure and new funding to the use of agricultural products for much more than just human or animal food.

With existing and newly created types of processing, various agricultural products have the potential to become fuels like ethanol or biodiesel. They can be used in the production of electrical power, lubricants, plastics, solvents, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, building materials and many other products.

In a multitude of ways, it should be possible to reduce the nation's need for fossil fuels - primarily petroleum - that now serve these functions. Ultimately, the program should also help address shortages of electrical power and record high prices for gasoline and natural gas. And in related fashion, the new ways to use and process agricultural products should provide additional markets and diversity of income for beleaguered farm families and rural communities across the nation, officials say.

According to Dutson, OSU's research strengths in genetic engineering, cropping systems and innovative technologies to optimize agricultural production should be an excellent fit with the goals of the new initiative.

"There's no doubt that our scientists at OSU can help this program capitalize on some of the opportunities in bioenergy," Dutson said. "We're ideally suited to help lead this initiative."

There should also be local benefits to Oregon agriculture, university officials said.

"In Oregon, for instance, there's probably more we could be doing with the straw that's a byproduct of the grass seed industry," said C.Y. Hu, assistant director of OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "It contains a lot of cellulose, and there may be technologies we can develop to produce energy, maybe even useful chemicals from this material. And part of the challenge will be to create systems that can function economically on a smaller, localized scale to help boost the local farm economy."

Under the terms of the new legislation, OSU would be the hub for research and Extension Sun Grant activities in the West, and would make at least 75 percent of the funding it receives available for competitive research grants across the region. But a significant amount of the research - and the educational opportunities it opens for both undergraduate and graduate students - would remain at OSU and often be applied to issues of importance to Oregon, officials say.

The funding on this program will be channeled through the Cooperative States Research, Education and Extension Service.

According to Dutson, OSU will soon form three standing committees to help organize the university's work under the new initiative. These will include a "technical" committee to help determine research needs and criteria for competitive grants, a "stakeholder" committee to gain input from the agricultural and industrial communities about the most pressing concerns, and an administrative committee to help manage the program.

The program will begin operation in 2005, officials say.

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C.Y. Hu, 541-737-1915