Knoxville celebrates Obama's award of $259M composites research hub to UT-led consortium

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President Barack Obama came to Knoxville on Friday to announce a national free college tuition plan modeled after Tennessee's program, but it was his announcement of a $259 million manufacturing innovation hub that prompted celebration among state officials.

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The Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Advanced Composites will be made up of 122 companies, nonprofits and research institutions anchored by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

The innovation center will conduct research on advanced composites like polymer composites that combine fiber with plastics to create materials that are stronger and lighter than steel. Goals include developing ways to produce them more cheaply and quickly.

"These are materials that would be ideal for fuel-efficient cars, or longer wind turbine blades that produce more energy, or materials that might go into our aviation sector," Obama said during a visit to Techmer PM, a maker of polymer modifiers, in Clinton, Tennessee.

It's the fifth of eight such hubs to be awarded in federal competitions. The U.S. Department of Energy will invest about $70 million, while the remaining $189 million will be supplied by partners in the consortium.

The hubs draw researchers, businesses and the government to focus on a common goal, Obama said.

"They create an ecosystem for a particular type of manufacturing and a specialization that allows where the hub is located to be a magnet for others who want to participate in this particular industry," the president said.

"This project places the university and its partners in a unique position to strengthen Tennessee's economy," University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said in a release. "This will build upon our deep collaborations with our consortium partners and spark innovation and growth within our nation's industries."

Other members of the new consortium include Boeing, Volkswagen, Ford, Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Matthias Erb, executive vice president of engineering and planning for Volkswagen Group of America, said the automaker has joined the consortium to work to "overcome current barriers to the use of advanced composite materials," which include high production costs and that they are not easily recyclable.

At the Clinton plant, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden checked out a 3D printed carbon fiber replica of a Shelby Cobra sports car, which weighs half as much as the 1960s original but is just as strong.

Obama noted that he was the first sitting president to visit Clinton, which is about 15 miles northwest of Knoxville. He joked that it was a "missed opportunity" for former President Bill Clinton.

"Let me tell you, if there's an Obama, Tennessee, I'm going there," he said.