HEALTHY Environment

1. Developing industrial processes emerging bio-economy

Developing industrial processes for the emerging bio-economy (Donnison)

Whilst fossil fuels have provided low cost energy and chemicals for the last century and more, they are a finite resource and their use contributes to climate change. We therefore need to return to the use of plants as the major resource for fuel, chemicals, and materials, and are using modern science and technology to develop novel approaches that will stimulate the bio-economy. Of particular interest to researchers is to create biorefineries. Technology systems take biological material and transform it into multiple products, in much the same way as oil refineries provide fuels, oils and the hydrocarbons used to produce plastics. IBERS is the lead partner in the BEACON, Biorefining Centre of Excellence; BEACONstaff are undertaking projects with companies interested in being part of the bio-economy. Many of the building blocks for complex materials can be produced from simple sugars. Agricultural crops such as maize and sugarcaneare potential sources, but we need to be mindful of the need to avoid competition with food supply. Consequently we need to develop ways of producing these sugars from non-food crops. The high sugar grasses developed at IBERS are potentially an ideal feedstock. Primary processing of the grass yields a press cake that can be ensiled for storage and fed to animals, and also produces a sugar rich juice which can be fermented to platform chemicals, including lactic acid. We are working with a range of companies across the plastic production and supply chain to develop grass-based plastics and have also demonstrated the production of egg boxes from grass fibre. This raises the possibility of widespread production of food packaging from grass, contributing to a reduction in fossil fuel use.

We are:

  • Combining our expertise in high sugar grasses with new facilities in fermentation to generate platform chemicals for the plastics industry.
  • Developing biorefining processes to produce fibre-based products.
  • Using our knowledge of cell wall chemistry in lignocellulosic crops such as Miscanthusto develop pre-treatment and fermentation processes that will enable these crops to be transformed into a range of useful end products.
  • Developing treatment and transformation processes for Municipal Solid Waste and a range of biological wastes to create added value.
  • Work in this area has been supported by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.

For more information contact: Prof. Iain Donnison isd@aber.ac.uk

2. Impacts of climate change on ruminant agri in the UK

The impacts of climate change on ruminant agriculture in the UK (Newbold)

UK agriculture has an important role to play in mitigating climate change by adopting low-carbon farming practices. But we also need to understand how to adapt to the changes that are occurring and address the threats and opportunities that will arise. Researchers in our Animal Systems group have focussed particularly on how climate change will affect ruminant agriculture and are contributing to informing policy makers via the ‘Living with Environmental Change’ partnership. Climate change will lead to increased temperatures and longer growing seasons, particularly in the North of England. However these potential benefits may well be tempered by lower water availability and a decrease in the land areas suited to growth of forage and traditional feed crops in Southern England. Meanwhile, the frequency of extreme rainfall events will lead to an increase in flooding. The soil erosion and nutrient leaching that accompanies this will pose direct problems for ruminant agriculture. They will also increase the need to consider the broader functions of agricultural land in delivering ecosystems services, such as the temporary retention of flood water to prevent impacts on towns and cities. Climate change may also affect ruminants directly; heat stress could become more likely and IBERS scientists have reported increased prevalence of liver and rumen fluke, which may be due to warmer and wetter conditions favouring the growth of the snails that carry these parasites. Our engagement with decision makers helps translate research outcomes into policy advice and incentive schemes that meet the needs of farmers and the environment, and also informs future research objectives.

We are:

  • Working to understand the impact of climate change on UK agriculture and translating research knowledge into policy and practitioner advice.
  • Developing research programmes targeting emerging problems such as the changes in pest and disease burdens that will result from changing weather patterns.
  • Researching animal feeds and their effects on enteric fermentation so that we can decrease the contribution of ruminants to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

For more information contact: Prof. Jamie Newbold cjn@aber.ac.uk

3. Conservation biomass and its potential as a bioenergy..

Conservation biomass and its potential as a bioenergy feedstock for Wales (Fraser)

Purple moor-grass (Molinia caerulea) is an invasive hill grass species that accounts for 10% of land cover in the UK uplands. Increasing Molinia abundance is often at the expense of heath and mire habitats. Whilst it can provide reasonable grazing for livestock in summer, if it is not actively grazed the sward builds up high amounts of dead material. This is avoided by stock, particularly sheep. Restoring heathland and improving habitat value therefore often involves cutting and removing the biomass. This in turn creates a waste management issue, low density material in remote locations with fragile ground conditions. Similar issues can arise with bracken and rush management. Bioenergy feedstock is typically processed for anaerobic digestion (which requires the material to have high levels of water-soluble sugars) or for combustion (which requires the material to be dry and dense). Using technology developed at the University of Kassel (Germany), we have successfully demonstrated the integrated generation of solid fuel and biogas (known as IFBB) using conservation biomass harvested from Welsh uplands. This involves pre-treating the material with hot water and then passing it through a screw press. The resulting liquid is suitable for anaerobic digestion, and the solid material can be used as solid fuel or to produce activated carbon or bio-oils. Together with other Welsh stakeholders, we are working to develop the process further into a biorefinery at farm scale. The aim is to demonstrate an economic and practical approach to management of conservation biomass that generates useful end products and contributes to greenhouse gas emission reductions.

We are:

  • Working with conservation charities and upland stakeholders to promote the active management of degraded heathlands in order to improve their biodiversity.
  • Demonstrating the integrated production of solid fuel and biogas from conservation biomass to stimulate an increase in uptake of the technology.
  • Developing the technology to generate higher value end-products together with European partners.

For more information contact: Dr Mariecia Fraser mdf@aber.ac.uk