UK scientists developing ways to produce green fuel faster

By Aberystwyth University Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences | October 06, 2015

Aberystwyth University scientists are playing a pivotal role in a £1.8 million ($2 million) project to develop the technology required to plant the energy crop miscanthus from seed.

As part of a project led by Terravesta Assured Energy Crops and funded by AgriTech Catalyst, a team from the University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences team will investigate how to optimize conditions for producing seed, and will trial a number of new varieties to investigate their yield and suitability for U.K. conditions.

Miscanthus is a plant with a straw-like stem that grows 2 to 3 meters high in a year, is harvested in spring and grows back from the roots to produce a crop each year. It can grow well on land less suitable for food crops, and the harvested crop is currently used for bioenergy for heat and power and in the future as a feedstock for the emerging biobased economy. U.K. demand for biomass for electricity generation currently exceeds 5 million metric tons a year of which 75 percent is imported.

The current method for planting miscanthus is from sections of root called rhizomes dug up from other miscanthus plants, but this limits how much can be planted annually. Planting miscanthus using seed allows the crop areas to be upscaled 200 times faster, and there by making a significant contribution to the market demands reducing dependence on imports.

This project entitled Miscanthus UpScaling Technology (MUST) aims to understand how to upscale miscanthus seed production—of promising hybrids bred to date—and produce commercially relevant best practice growing and harvesting information so that more of the crop can be grown in the UK and create a new industry of benefit to farmers and the rural economy.

Leading the project for IBERS is Dr. John Clifton Brown, who’s confident in the future of this crop. He describes the project, what impact it will have for the agricultural industry, and ultimately, the implications for reducing U.K. CO2 emissions.

“Seed based hybrids are now being developed here to speed up the planting process and during this research project IBERS scientists will develop methods to upscale seed production using four trial sites across the U.K.,” Brown said.

“Miscanthus originates from Asia, and with the help of DEFRA and the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) we have spent the last 10 years developing it into a crop that can be grown by farmers in the U.K. and that can supply the growing U.K. biomass demand,” Brown added. “Several harvesting approaches will be explored to maximize crop quality and quantity. The overall goal is to develop new systems for miscanthus-based agriculture that increase profitability and so enable transition of today’s niche crop into a large scale biomass supply system.”

“The U.K. needs to reduce CO2 emissions in order to mitigate climate change, and we also need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels,” Brown said.

The Agri-Tech Catalyst supports collaborative research between scientists and businesses to springboard projects from the lab to the market place.

The £70 million Agri-Tech Catalyst is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Department for International Development.

The Agri-Tech Catalyst is run by Innovate U.K. and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

To date, 52 Agri-Tech Catalyst projects worth £43 million, £30 million from U.K. government and £13 million from industry, have been announced.

The Agri-Tech Catalyst forms part of the U.K. Agricultural Technologies Strategy—a long term plan, and £160 million U.K. government investment, developed in partnership with industry will build on the strengths of the U.K. agricultural technologies sector.