Southampton University to take part in bio-energy trials

Southampton University is taking part in projects that will evaluate the use of biomass to create a cost-effective and sustainable energy system for the UK by 2050.

According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, domestic biomass, sustainably grown in the UK, could provide up to 10 per cent of the UK’s energy needs by 2050 and significantly contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Three new bio-energy projects launched on 19 May by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), valued at £4.57m, are aimed at establishing an in-depth field trial to study ecosystem and sustainability when converting land to bio-energy crop production, and exploring the key challenges in developing sustainable UK bio-energy supply chains for heat, power and transport fuels production.

A third project will examine the cost effectiveness, technology challenges and technology developments required for biomass to power combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS).

A team from Southampton University, led by Prof Gail Taylor, will be participating in two of the three projects.

The largest of the three projects is the three-year-long £3.28m Ecosystem Land-Use Modelling (ELUM) trial, designed to study the impact of bio-energy crop land-use changes on soil carbon stocks and GHG emissions.

The Southampton University team will address the current uncertainties, measuring how these energy crops take up carbon dioxide, how much of that is locked up in crop and soil and how much is released back to the environment.

Dr Matthew Tallis, environmental plant biologist from the Southampton University team, said: ‘We will achieve this by instrumenting a real commercial energy crop field in Oxfordshire and collect data on carbon flux continuously, over the duration of the project.

‘We have very little idea on how these new second-generation crops affect the net balance of carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions, and they could be a significant improvement compared with land use for other purposes, including arable and grassland crops.’

The data will be utilised in bio-energy crop yield models to assess how much carbon captured by the energy crop can be utilised for energy purposes and how much may be held in long-term pools of carbon in the soil or sequestered.

In a second project — the nine-month-long £835,000 Biomass Systems Value Chain Modelling project — Southampton researchers will focus on estimating the current and future supply of biomass for the UK market, given constraints such as conflict with food, the nature conservation value of the land or where other ecosystem services might be negatively affected.

In addition, the results of this research will be linked to current scenarios for UK climate change and biomass supply will be predicted forward to 2020 and 2050.

These two projects will help to inform several policy developments for future bio-energy deployment in the UK, with the overall aim to move towards a low-carbon economy with a reduction in GHG emissions of 80 per cent by 2050.