University of Dundee

CLS and SCRI at the hub of the biggest public investment in biofuels

27 Jan 2009

Bioenergy research in Scotland is set to benefit from the biggest ever single UK public investment in the field, announced today by the main funding agency for the biosciences - the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The £27M BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre has been launched to provide the science to underpin and develop the important and emerging UK sustainable bioenergy sector - and to replace the petrol in our cars with fuels derived from plants.

The University of Dundee has been named as one of the six research hubs of academic and industrial partners to benefit from the investment. The University project will work with a number of partners including the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI), the Scottish Government Rural and Environment Research and Analysis Directorate (RERAD) and the University of York.

The Dundee-led part of the Centre will concentrate on improving barley straw for lignin properties and transferring the new knowledge to other crops. Lignin is a polymer in plants that makes it difficult to access sugars which are vital for bioenergy production. The Dundee-led programme aims to alter lignin production in barley to make it easier to produce bioenergy from waste straw without reducing the quality of the crop.

“This is a very exciting collaboration that matches research excellence from each of the project partners in areas relevant to the production of `second-generation’ biofuels, those that do not impact food production,” said Professor Claire Halpin, of the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee and head of the Dundee `hub’.

“If we can find a way of accessing these key sugars in barley straw it would have a significant impact on the types of agricultural waste and dedicated energy crops that could be used to produce sustainable bioenergy.

“We are using barley as model, partly due to the excellent work already done on barley at SCRI, but hopefully we will then be able to transfer results to other crops.”

Peter Gregory, Chief Executive and Institute Director of SCRI said: “We are delighted to be involved in such an important and innovative project, which will build on our previous research work and collaborations to deliver new environmentally-friendly fuels.

“The work of the Sustainable Bioenergy Centre will help pave the way for a significant change in energy use leading to a more secure future for both energy provision and food production.”

Sustainable bioenergy offers the potential to provide a significant source of clean, low carbon and secure energy, and to generate thousands of new ‘green collar’ jobs. It uses non-food crops, such as willow, industrial and agricultural waste products and inedible parts of crops, such as straw, and so does not take products out of the food chain.

Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, said: "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 the University of Dundee 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."

The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre is focussed on six research hubs of academic and industrial partners, based at each of the Universities of Cambridge, Dundee and York and Rothamsted Research and two at the University of Nottingham. Another 7 universities and institutes are involved and 15 industrial partners across the hubs are contributing around £7M of the funding. The Scottish Government is contributing up to £600,000 over the next three years to fund SCRI’s involvement in the Dundee hub’s activities in the Centre.

The Centre’s research activities will encompass many different stages of bioenergy production, from widening the range of materials that can be the starting point for bioenergy to improving the crops used by making them grow more efficiently to changing plant cell walls. The Centre will also analyse the complete economic and environmental life cycle of potential sources of bioenergy.

This means the researchers will be working to make sustainable bioenergy a practical solution by improving not only the yield and quality of non-food biomass and the processes used to convert this into biofuels but ensuring that the whole system is economically and socially viable.

BBSRC Chief Executive, Prof Douglas Kell, said: “The UK has a world leading research base in plant and microbial science. The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre draws together some of these world beating scientists in order to help develop technology and understanding to support the sustainable bioenergy sector. The Centre is taking a holistic systems-level approach, examining all the relevant areas of science needed for sustainable bioenergy and studying the economic and social impact of the bioenergy process.

“By working closely with industrial partners the Centre’s scientists will be able to quickly translate their progress into practical solutions to all our benefit - and ultimately, by supporting the sustainable bioenergy sector, help to create thousands of new ‘green collar’ jobs in the UK.”

In Dundee the grant will create five new posts - three post-doctoral researchers and two technicians - for the five-year period of the grant. Professor Halpin said it would also further strengthen the growing bonds between the University and SCRI.