Green fuel

Dr Iain Donnison with Miscanthus in the background

Dr Iain Donnison with Miscanthus in the background

27 January 2009

Scientists from Aberystwyth University are set to play a major role in a £27m UK initiative launched by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) today, Tuesday 27 January 2009, to develop clean, green and sustainable fuels.

The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC) represents the biggest ever single UK public investment in bioenergy research. Its aim is to provide the science to underpin and develop the important and emerging UK sustainable bioenergy sector – and to replace the petrol in cars with fuels derived from plants.

Dr Iain Donnison from the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University will be working with scientists from Rothamsted Research, Imperial College London and Cambridge University on the Perennial Bioenergy Crops Programme – one of six research hubs that make up BSBEC.

The Perennial Bioenergy Crops Programme will look at ways of improving the yields of fast growing trees and grasses and to make more of the plants' carbon available for conversion into biofuels, and to do this without increasing inputs such as fertilizers.
Dr Donnison and his team of researchers at IBERS are recognised as world leaders in the development of energy grasses, including Miscanthus, or Asian Elephant Grass as it is also known.

Originating in South East Asia, Miscanthus, can reach a height of 4 metres in the UK, and grows well even in the UK's colder climate, on less fertile soil and without the need for annual applications of fertiliser. Over the past 5 years the team has built up one of the world’s largest collections of Miscanthus outside Asia.

Harvested in late winter/early spring, it is already used as a fuel by some of the UK’s largest power stations where it is co-fired with coal. As part of the BSBEC programme the Aberystwyth team will work on developing new varieties with the aim of significantly increasing yield from current levels of 12 tonnes per hectare.

When combusted as a coal substitute, one hectare currently produces enough fuel to save between 5 and 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.

Professor Noel Lloyd, Vice-Chancellor Aberystwyth University, has welcomed the BBSRC’s initiative: “I am delighted that Aberystwyth University is contributing to major collaborative initiatives of this kind. The University’s involvement emphasises the impact of the internationally leading research that is being undertaken here and its role in addressing the global issue of climate change.”

Aberystwyth’s involvement has received the support of the Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson. "Investing £27 million in this new centre involves the single biggest UK public investment in bioenergy research. The centre is exactly the sort of initiative this country needs to lead the way in transforming the exciting potential of sustainable biofuels into a widespread technology that can replace fossil fuels. The expertise and resources of IBERS makes it well placed to make a valuable contribution to the new BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre and help to make sustainable, environmentally-friendly bioenergy a reality."

Dr Iain Donnison said: “The announcement of this initiative by the BBSRC represents an important milestone in the development of biofuels in the UK. Bioenergy crops are essentially biological solar panels and batteries. For example Miscanthus captures sunlight and stores it in a form which can be readily harvested and used as a fuel without using prime agricultural land. This project will build the underpinning crop science necessary to increase bioenergy yield and thereby reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.”

Professor Wayne Powell, Director of IBERS said:
“This award demonstrates the quality and relevance of our research at Aberystwyth University in an area of critical importance to global energy security.”

BSBEC is made up of six hubs or programmes.

BSBEC Cell Wall Lignin Programme – Improving barley straw for lignin production and transferring the new knowledge to other crops. Lignin is a polymer in plants that makes it difficult to access sugars for bioenergy production. The programme aims to alter lignin properties in barley to make it easier to produce bioenergy without reducing the quality of the crop.
University of Dundee with associated programme members: University of York, SCRI and RERAD.

BSBEC Cell Wall Sugars Programme – developing strategies to improve plants and enzymes for increased sugar release from biomass. The programme aims to better understand how sugars are locked into plant cell walls. By doing this we can select the right plants and the right enzymes to release the maximum amount of sugars for conversion to biofuels.
University of Cambridge with associated programme members: Newcastle University, Shell and Novozymes.

BSBEC Lignocellulosic Conversion to Bioethanol (LACE) Programme – using agricultural and wood-industry wastes to create biofuels. The programme is aiming to optimise the release of sugars from plant cell walls to produce a fermentable material to produce fuels. It will also work on microbes to efficiently turn the material into fuel.

University of Nottingham with associated programme members: University of Bath, University of Surrey, BP, Bioethanol Ltd, Briggs of Burton, British Sugar, Coors Brewers, DSM, Ethanol Technology, HGCA, Pursuit Dynamics, SABMiller and Scottish Whisky Research Institute.

BSBEC Marine Wood Borer Enzyme Discovery Programme – New enzymes for the conversion of non-food plant biomass into biofuels from marine wood borers. Wood and straw contain polysaccharides that if converted to simple sugars could be fermented into biofuels. At the moment we do not have suitable enzymes to break down these woody materials. However, marine wood borers consume huge amounts of woody material and their guts have all the enzymes needed to break it down. The programme aims to exploit this.
University of York with associated programme members: University of Portsmouth and Syngenta Biomass Traits Group.

BSBEC Perennial Bioenergy Crops Programme – optimising biomass yield and composition for sustainable biofuels. The programme aims to improve yields of fast growing trees and grasses and to make more of the plants’ carbon available for conversion into biofuels and to do this without increasing inputs such as fertilizers.
Rothamsted Research with associated programme members: Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), Imperial College London and University of Cambridge.

BSBEC Second Generation Sustainable, Bacterial Biofuels Programme – optimising production of the more effective second generation biofuel biobutanol from non-food biomass. Biobutanol is a superior biofuel to ethanol but currently available microbes used in biobutanol production processes are inefficient, produce unwanted by-products and cannot use plant cell walls directly as a feed material. The programme aims to generate and test new bacterial strains to overcome this.
University of Nottingham with associated programme members: Newcastle University and TMO Renewables.