IFR’s David Wilson with the steam explosion pilot unit
A Biorefinery Centre was launched at the UK’s Institute of Food Research on Friday 30th September, where scientists will explore new ways to make use of residual plant material from food processing and agriculture. In collaboration with Lotus Engineering and other partners, they are addressing the challenge of producing fuel with a lower carbon footprint. The biofuel could also combine a performance advantage.
At the heart of the centre is a steam explosion pilot plant, to be used to blow apart plant cell walls to extract useful natural products.
Researchers will use the pilot plant to extract sugars that are normally locked into the cell walls of straw and woody plants by lignin, the substance that gives these plants their strength. Once freed, these sugars can be treated with enzymes and fermented with yeast to produce bio-alcohol.
IFR Director Prof. David Boxer and George Freeman MP hear about the steam explosion unit from Prof. Keith Waldron
The aim of the research is to turn residual, inedible biomass into more useful material for fibre processing, natural fibre development, releasing phenolics – such as the antioxidant ferulic acid – and for transport fuel.
“Once the food part of a crop has been exploited, there is a mass of plant material left behind that is often discarded as waste,” said Professor Keith Waldron.
George Freeman MP opening the Biorefinery Centre
“With the launch of the pilot plant and through collaborations on the Norwich Research Park we have all the expertise necessary to help industry explore ways to make use of it,” he said.
Industry partners will test the commercial viability of the material produced for different sectors.
The bio-alcohol generated will be tested by Lotus in their bi-fuel and tri-fuel engines. Engineers will experiment with optimizing combustion and efficiency.
“Just about any type of alcohol can be used to fuel a car and if it is optimised can even give a performance advantage,” said Dr Richard Pearson, senior technical specialist at Lotus Engineering.
“For example, we see significant improvements in torque at low and high speed.”
The Centre will also house a yeast screening facility and yeast propagator to generate sufficient bulk yeast for processing. For example, specialist yeast strains from IFR’s National Collection of Yeast Cultures will be used in the fermentation used to create the bio-alcohol.
The centre has grown out of IFR’s knowledge of the structure of plant cell walls, which started with research by Professor Waldron into water chestnuts and their unique ability to keep their crunch after processing and cooking. With millions of tonnes of residual plant material generated during food processing and by agriculture, Professor Waldron saw an opportunity to find new uses for it that would not compete with food production.
For example, East Anglian brewer Adnams, a partner in the research, generates about 2400 tonnes of brewer spent grain a year. Other waste will include unused rape and wheat straw, hemp and waste cereal grain from milling.
Scientists at the John Innes Centre are researching ways to breed crop varieties that combine optimum traits in a plant stem for biomass exploitation as well as optimum traits for food.
“The holy grail for biomass exploitation is to break down the structure of wheat and other currently grown crops,” said Richard Parker from Renewables East, one of the project’s funders.
“The advanced technologies from the Biorefinery Centre could provide valuable IP that could be used not just in the UK but globally, giving a return to UK plc.”
An added benefit of using bio-alcohol is that existing engines can be easily adapted to run on it and existing distribution methods can be used.
“Bio-alcohol is still a liquid fuel and it does not require a quantum change in vehicle technology or in fuel distribution infrastructure,” said Dr Richard Pearson.
Funding for the Biorefinery Centre has come from BBSRC and EEDA. Recent and on-going research is being funded by BBSRC, Defra, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), AHDB-HGCA, the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) and Renewables East. Collaborating Industrial partners include Lotus, Vireol, Adnams, and Biocatalysts Ltd. Collaborating academic partners include the University of East Anglia, the John Innes Centre and Brunel University.
Commenting on the Centre, George Freeman MP said:
“I am thrilled and excited by the developments at the Institute of Food Research and congratulate them on their new addition of a Biorefinery Centre.”
“I have long been a supporter of our scientific potential in the East and this is another example of Norfolk’s world class potential.”