Research centre set to tackle bioenergy generation problems

A new UK research centre is hoping to tackle some of the problems preventing bioenergy generation becoming more widespread.

The SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub, announced today by science minister David Willetts, will enable researchers at six universities to share expertise on how biomass plants can be better used and constructed to help cut carbon-dioxide emissions.

The £3.5m centre will take on specific issues such as improving the conversion of biomatter into gas (gasification) but also how examine how technologies can be better integrated to make plants more flexible and efficient.

‘The key thing about the hub is that it’s not just focused on technology but it’s looking at the whole system,’ said the hub’s director, Dr Patricia Thornley of Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

This will include assessing different types of biomass and energy outputs — for example, electricity, heat or vehicle fuel — and working out where the biggest efficiency problems are in order to optimise carbon savings in different systems.

Biomass already accounts for almost half the renewable electricity generation in the UK (which itself is more than 10 per cent of total generation), with much of that in the form of landfill gas.

But Thornley said bioenergy could sustainably provide between seven and eight per cent of the country’s total energy needs, rising to 10 per cent if suitable sources of surplus materials such as wood can be imported.

Aston University will lead one of the hub’s projects examining new approaches to creating bio-oil for transport fuel

One of the hub’s key focuses will be on improving gasification technology, which is used to make biomass a more efficient and less polluting fuel, although it is still not as efficient as burning coal.

‘The problem is there’s lots of different types of gasifier and they’ve all got different problems and characteristics,’ said Thornley, highlighting the variable quality and purity of biomass fuels.

‘It’s getting an interface that is sufficiently flexible to perform with that variation and yet sufficiently robust to protect the equipment without sacrificing efficiency,’ she said.

Newcastle University will lead a project on improving gasifier systems, while other programmes at the hub will include a Leeds University study of biomass processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and an Aston University project examining new approaches to creating bio-oil for transport fuel.

Because biomass generation is already established in the UK, research at the hub could have a rapid impact on industrial practices by sharing academic expertise with the centre’s 10 partner businesses.

Over a slightly longer term, the hub could help establish a pilot plant in the next five years to trial the results of the gasification research.