Crop Science and Plant Breeding - Industrial crops for sustainable energy and materials
Industrial crops for sustainable energy and materials
Our industrial crops programme is developing plants for heat, power and raw materials. The aim is to produce new materials and products that reduce carbon emissions by replacing carbon intensive alternatives.
Recent reports indicate that for the UK to meet Net Zero targets perennial biomass crops, such as Miscanthus, will be needed and grown across several hundred thousand hectares. This is because such crops are highly energy efficient and able to remove CO2 especially if combined with carbon capture and storage technologies when used for energy generation.
Plants take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Harvesting and burning plant biomass for heat or power releases the same “contemporary” carbon back into the atmosphere (Fig 1). This is different to the ancient carbon released during the burning of fossil fuels that increases overall atmospheric CO2. Similarly the carbon can be fixed into products some of which have very long life times. By using perennial crops and senesced plant materials we can significantly improve the sustainability of the crop by reducing agronomic inputs and returning nutrients to the field for use in subsequent growth years.
Figure 1. Carbon flow (below) and approximate greenhouse gas balance (above) achievable from different fuel use scenarios including fossil fuel, green or senesced biomass with and without carbon capture and storage (CCS); (from Robson et al., 2019)
Our focus is on developing plants that produce the best balance of high yield from low inputs while delivering the right quality of biomass. We have a major research programme focussed on the high yielding C4 grass, Miscanthus. We also work on indigenous perennial ryegrass, reed canary grass, and short rotation coppice willow. All these perennials can combine high yield potentials with minimal or no fertiliser /pesticide input. The ecosystem benefits of perennials include carbon sequestration, prevention of soil erosion and nutrient leaching, and improvement of habitat for biodiversity through more permanent land cover and reduced pesticide use.
We also work on selected annuals, such as hemp, for fibre and chemicals. Recent projects have also included marine biomass resources and fresh water algae (Lemna), processed for high value products and water remediation.
Our aim is to increase biomass crop production in the UK and beyond by:
- Understanding the trait biology that contributes to an optimised biomass crop
- Generating varieties of perennial crops with improved traits such as yield
- Optimising biomass composition for energy release and bioproducts
- Developing efficient ways to establish and grow crops for rapid deployment
- Quantifying the environmental credentials of biomass crops
- Contributing to policy development on biomass crops for bio-renewables
Highlights & Capabilities
Highlights and Capabilities
- 1500+ Miscanthus accessions from Asia curated at the IBERS Biobank for conservation and breeding.
- In situ and ex-situ phenotypic characterization of selected accessions in multi-location trials, used to identify promising lines for use in the UK and Europe.
- Infrastructure and knowledge to perform wide interspecies crosses to generate gains from heterosis.
- Seed and rhizome production of new commercial hybrids with commercial partners.
- Plug-plant agronomies for establishment of seed-based hybrids
- Advanced hybrids entered for variety protection with commercial licences.
- Longer term trials for assessment of yield and co-benefits to the environment.
- Spatial and temporal opportunity mapping models for policy makers to guide the appropriate use of land resources.
For other crops
- Willow: ongoing long term yield trials.
- Marine: wild-harvested material collections from Wales, Scotland, SW England and the Philippines. Collaborations on large-scale seaweed utilisation within both the UK and Europe.
- Hemp variety evaluation for Wales with material selected for protein, oil composition and fibre.
- Reed canary grass: curation of >200 accessions collected across Europe and characterised for flowering time and chemical composition.
- BBSRC-Resilient Crops programme (2023-2028) Miscanthus for sustainable biomass and carbon capture, providing GHG removal toward meeting NetZero targets.
- PBC4GGR (2022-2026) Demonstrating carbon credentials of biomass crops and breeding Miscanthus for soil carbon sequestration
- BiomassConnect (2022-2025) Demonstration & knowledge sharing platform for scaling up of the bioenergy industry.
- Miscanspeed (2022-2025) using genomic selection and speed breeding to improve the speed and efficiency of Miscanthus breeding.
- AI Miscanthus (2022-) Using artificial intelligence in Miscanthus breeding
- BRAINWAVES a collaboration with University of Cork, Ireland, to generate products from fast growing high protein algae used to clean farm effluents
Post-Docs: Dr Muhammed Naveed Arshad, Dr Chris Ashman, Dr Chris Davey, Dr Amanda Holder, Dr Beatrice Ilfe, Dr Nelson Lubanga, Dr Rebecca Wilson
Chris Glover, Karen Askew, Emma Timms-Taravella, David Treharne