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Supergen can help 'discover new, better ways of making fuels'

Work being carried out in northern England could pave the way to find more efficient fuels and better ways of generating power, managing carbon emissions, as well as creating economic opportunities.

A new research hub that will investigate the efficiency and whole-life impact of a variety of bioenergy techniques and accelerate the deployment of sustainable bioenergy has been announced.

The new Supergen Bioenergy Hub is funded by a grant of 3.5 million pounds from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The hub spans six research institutions and involves 10 industrial partners. It began work this summer and is being directed by Dr Patricia Thornley of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester.

Initially, the hub will address 10 research projects ranging from turning biomass into transport fuels, to capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning biomass feedstocks.

Dr Thornley said: "The Supergen Bioenergy Hub is going to really drill into a whole host of bioenergy prospects. It is not just going to look at what will work practically, in terms of generating power, but also the impact of such technologies. This is vitally important; we have to look at the sustainability of these new avenues."

For example, two of the projects will focus on reducing emissions from biomass combustion. Professor David Delpy, the EPSRC's chief executive, said: "The scientific research carried out through the Supergen Bioenergy Hub can help us discover new and better ways of making fuels, generating power, managing carbon emissions and create economic opportunities for the UK.

"The hub will act as a focal point, bringing industry, academia and other stakeholders together to focus on the challenges associated with bioenergy and its role in meeting environmental targets."

The UK Minister for Universities & Science, David Willetts, said: "Research and innovation play a vital role in our transition to a low-carbon economy. The Supergen Bioenergy Hub will bring together leading academic and industrial partners to look at this pressing challenge and develop practical solutions for a greener future."

Of the two projects that will focus on reducing emissions from biomass combustion, one of these will involve practical measurement work on real boilers, trying to identify cost-effective methods of reducing particulates and other atmospheric pollutants at small scale. Lead: Newcastle University.

Additionally, a fundamental scientific study will focus on identifying key markers for emissions from fuel analyses. Lead: Leeds University.

There is significant interest in substituting natural gas in the national network with bio-derived gas. This is already being trialled via anaerobic digestion routes that can produce a close match to the natural gas composition, but generally uses feedstocks such as slurry. This project will look at alternative routes to producing a natural gas substitute from other feedstocks, including wood and establish if the environmental and economic balances are worth pursuing when the whole life-cycle is taken into account.

Many biomass supply chains are long and complex, with multiple processing stages and the extent to which material is lost (such as in drying or storage) is poorly understood. Work will focus on identifying the most significant losses along key supply chains, quantifying their impact and proposing measures to mitigate these. Lead: Rothamsted Research.

It is essential to ensure that bioenergy systems actually deliver real greenhouse-gas reductions. However, there are many stages in some supply chains where knowledge of potential greenhouse-gas impacts is limited, making it difficult in some cases to be confident that substantial reductions are being achieved. This project will investigate key sources of uncertainty and their potential greenhouse-gas significance, allowing producers and users to focus on improving these to maximise greenhouse-gas savings.

Turning biomass into a gas can increase the efficiency and improve the environmental impact of electricity and heat production as well as providing routes to transport fuel and chemical production. Work on whole systems engineering integration of gasifiers will be carried out in close collaboration with industry to develop feasible and robust processing schemes. Lead: Newcastle University.

Editor:Dai Liu