23 Juni 2009

UK: Bioethanol from ryegrass opportunity for grassland farms?

Research project "Grassohol" aims for commercial process

Welsh scientists are working on an exciting and highly innovative research project to turn grass into a green transport fuel. The £1million “Grassohol” research project aims to develop commercially and economically viable processes to make ethanol from perennial ryegrass – the most commonly sown grass in the UK which is normally used for grazing or silage.

It could provide a significant and sustainable economic boost for rural communities and make an invaluable contribution to renewable energy targets while also reducing carbon emissions.

Ryegrasses with high extractable sugar contents will be utilised in the project which will examine the best methods of extracting and fermenting the sugar and of maximising yields and rates of ethanol production. The dried residue after fermentation and distillation is rich in protein and has the potential to be converted into animal feed. One hectare of grassland could produce up to 4500 litres of ethanol and it is envisaged that local refineries could be established on farms at a similar scale of production to wine co-operatives.

The project is led by the recently formed Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University which has incorporated the internationally renowned Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research. The research includes an industrial collaboration between IBERS and two Welsh companies – Aber Instruments and the Wynnstay Group – for which the Institute has received £154,000 funding from the Welsh Assembly Government’s Academic Expertise for Business (A4B) programme.

This element forms part of a wider £1 million, three year research programme, which has received funding from DEFRA, DECC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) via the Renewable Materials LINK programme.

Dr Joe Gallagher from IBERS explained that biofuel production in the UK is very limited and that the bulk of bioethanol contained in transport fuels sold on UK forecourts is imported. This bioethanol is produced from food crops such as maize, wheat and sugar cane which potentially compromises global food security. But he said the use of ryegrass offers a far more sustainable and acceptable solution that does not compete directly with the food industry. It is cheap and easy to grow, farmers already have the necessary expertise – and equipment – to manage, harvest and store grass.

“Ryegrass is ideally suited to our climate and soil conditions, its cultivation will not affect existing environmentally sensitive landscapes or biodiversity and it has a high extractable sugar content. Because of these combined properties, it offers greater potential as a feedstock for bioethanol production than many other energy crops. If a new profitable outlet is found for grass then farmers have the ability to grow more to meet that demand and technically the same land could be used for animal grazing, silage production and fuel production.”

In Wales 1.04 million hectares – 62% of the available land – is permanent grassland providing a readily available resource that can be harvested over a long season. Ryegrasses are commonly grown with white clover which fixes nitrogen into the soil and acts as a natural fertiliser. This lowers production costs as well as reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertiliser manufacture.

Ieuan Wyn Jones, Minister for the Economy and Transport, said the research project had the potential to provide a highly innovative and cost effective green transport fuel. “If successful Grassohol has the potential to stimulate the rural economy and provide farmers with a viable form of diversification – it could result in new green jobs and will lay the foundation for developing ancillary technologies geared to bio-ethanol production and bio-refining.

The Assembly Government’s A4B programme is designed to bring about real economic benefits through increasing collaboration between academia and industry and is promoting, supporting and funding a wide range of highly innovative collaborative projects. “It is helping to drive forward and develop commercially viable products and processes through innovative projects like Grassohol which has exciting possibilities not just for the Welsh economy but for the UK as a whole.” The research will contribute to the creation of a centre of excellence in agri-biorefinery in Wales which will also investigate producing chemicals from plants which have previously been produced by the petrochemical industry.

Under the industrial collaboration Wynnstay will gain valuable information on the production and processing of feedstock for bio ethanol production – including the identification of suitable varieties of high sugar ryegrass and machinery for processing the plant material.

Aber Instruments will develop and adapt new equipment for monitoring the growth of yeast and other micro organisms during fermentation to meet the growing demand from a potentially huge international market.

Source: Welsh Assembly Government, press release, 2009-05-28.

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