A new research and demonstration facility could establish Wales as a major centre for bio-refining.
The BEACON programme will turn locally grown crops into commercial products, including fuels, plastic composites, pharmaceuticals and textiles — in essence, any products that are traditionally made from oil.
A key part of the project will be to work with a variety of industrial partners, the target being 200 businesses over the course of the project, which runs until June 2015.
‘We’re trying to demonstrate the commercial potential here,’ said Dr Steven Fish of Aberystwyth University. ’Technically it can be done, but the finances have got to add up. If it’s not competitive, it doesn’t matter how good the science is, it won’t go any further.’
BEACON, which has a total budget of £20m, is headed by the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth, in collaboration with Bangor and Swansea universities.
It will bring together geneticists, microbiologists and agriculture experts to work on a variety of feedstocks, including crops such as rye grass, miscanthus, oats and artichokes.
The researchers will effectively build a medium-sized bio-refinery that will be able to produce on the thousand-litre scale.
‘When you start operating at that level, it becomes commercially relevant and it’s directly scalable to full industrial scale — say 100,000 litres,’ said Fish.
Chemicals derived from the crops will be likely to have a use in a range of industrial sectors, including transport, construction, textiles and food.
Feasibility studies have suggested that replacing some of the industrial chemicals produced from oil with similar molecules from plants within easy reach of Welsh producers could supply potential markets worth between £360m and £560m.
However, the BEACON researchers are mindful of some of the recent criticisms levelled at biofuels in particular.
‘We are trying to be careful to avoid the whole fuel-versus-food argument,’ said Fish. ’The idea of the BEACON initiative is you’d use plants that you don’t need to cultivate on your best land and a lot of it will hinge around lignin and cellulose — so not using something that’s directly consumed by humans as food.’
This week, deputy first minister for Wales Ieuan Wyn Jones announced an initial £10.5m of funding for the programme from the European Regional Development Fund.