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$160 million in circular manufacturing funds up for grabs

44 projects are hoping to get investment from the National Science Foundation in 2025.

A photo of the departure gate in CVG Airport

The departure gate of CVG airport, an important partner to GAME Change, connecting the coalition to private sector powerhouses like Amazon and DHL.

The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 will provide up to $160 million to fund technology and manufacturing hubs with tangible societal and economic impact across the United States in 2025.

To distribute the funding, the U.S. National Science Foundation created the "NSF Engines Awards," which will be given to successful applicants early next year. The awards will fund "groundbreaking technologies in topic areas as diverse as semiconductors, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing while stimulating regional job growth and economic development," according to the NSF.

In what the NSF is calling the "development phase" of the awards, one finalist, the Generate Advanced Manufacturing Excellence for Change Engine (GAME Change) of Kentucky and Tennessee, received $1 million. GAME Change is a coalition of academics, researchers and private industry executives who want to identify wasteful manufacturing practices, unconnected shipping chains and unexploited new technologies. They hope to offer a resource base so that one company’s waste can become another’s raw material, innovations can be spread more quickly between companies, and to incubate low- and no-carbon startups through the two states.

GAME Change — and 43 other finalists — will use the $1 million awarded to each to develop an application for the full $160 million.

The Kentucky-Tennessee freight corridor

GAME Change represents the Southeastern Corridor of the United States, located in Kentucky and Tennessee, an important freight corridor, according to Ian McClure, director of the GAME Change coalition and associate vice president for research, innovation and economic impact at the University of Kentucky. He was speaking at GreenBiz’s Circularity 24 conference.

"People don’t realize that four of the largest logistics hubs in the country are in Kentucky and Tennessee," said McClure, referring to UPS Worldport in Louisville, the DHL and Amazon air hubs and the FedEx World Hub airport in Memphis. "The Federal Highway Administration has said that by 2040, Kentucky and Tennessee will have more freight tonnage flowing through them than any other states."

It is this mecca of shipping logistics that McClure wants to transform into a net-zero, circular manufacturing economy, before it’s too late.

To achieve this, McClure hosted a summit in March attended by academics from a range of institutions — including Vanderbilt University, University of Kentucky and Tennessee State University — and executives from more than 40 companies. The summit discussed "the technologies that we want to advance to make sure closed-loop circular manufacturing can be done at scale."

One of those companies is the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. McClure explained that the airport is planning to act as a liaison between GAME Change and DHL and Amazon, communicating the logistical needs of the two companies.

But GAME Change isn’t only focusing on supply chains. "A lot of this is to make sure we can create new access to things like automation robotics for disassembly and make [sure] that’s affordable and accessible," said McClure. "Customized robotics is not cheap and most small manufacturers can’t access it."

February deadline

Meanwhile, the submission date for the full $160 million in funding is only eight months away.  

"The [NSF] put us on a timeline and said our proposal has to be in by February 2025, with the preliminary proposal due by August of this year," said McClure. Of the 44 semi-finalists, only 10 will be selected to receive any of the $160 million. 

By that time, the U.S. will either be under a second term of the Biden administration or a new Trump presidency. Either way, McClure isn’t worried about funding drying up.

"It turns out that competing with China on a global innovation scale is something that has bipartisan support," said McClure. His assertion is backed by the recently introduced Americas Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), which funds domestic production of textiles and provides up to $90 billion to companies for "reshoring," or the domestication manufacturing services. 

If GAME Change fails to procure the NSF Engine Award, McClure told GreenBiz that the coalition’s efforts will not end.

"We have a GAME Change alliance that we’re going to be launching soon that is going to have a membership model with basically a fee-based approach to develop a sustainability model," he said. While receiving the funding would ensure the entire proposal is covered, the membership fee-model would assure businesses that GAME Change can still deliver.

Read more about GAME Change’s plan here.

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