Memorandum submitted by the Biotechnology
and Biological Sciences Research Council
To evaluate level of expenditure on RD&D in
non-carbon energy technologies, by UK Government, the Research
Councils, the Carbon Trust and industry, and where it is being
1. Whilst the current inquiry is looking
at research, development and demonstration, it must be made clear
that BBSRC's relevant activities described below are restricted
to research. Development and demonstration are not part of BBSRC's
support for sustainable energy production.
2. BBSRC is the main UK funder of the non-medical
biosciences. A significant volume of BBSRC supported research
is to understand the biology of plants and their interactions
with the biotic and abiotic environment. This feeds into work
on crop plants, including crops grown for energy. BBSRC does not
support research on non-carbon fuels, but does support research
on alternatives to fossil fuels ie energy crops, biomass and biofuels.
These are considered to be "carbon-neutral" as the carbon
dioxide they use, by photosynthesis in growing, balances that
released when they or their derivatives are burned. This is slightly
misleading as some additional energy is usually expended (and
thus CO2 evolved) at some point during the growing
or processing of such materials. BBSRC's main interest in the
non-carbon fuel economy stems from both an environmental and sustainable
agriculture viewpoint as energy crops provide an alternative outlet
3. BBSRC also supports research into light
harvesting complexes (photosystems) in plants and microbes (cyanobacteria)
as a potential energy source. This is driven by BBSRC's interest
in manipulating and improving the plant's ability to photosynthesise
since this can lead to the development of crop varieties with
enhanced yield and/or ability to grow under poorer environmental
conditions. However, increased knowledge of photo systems will
contribute to the possibility of exploiting them in photovoltaic
cells for sustainable energy production.
4. The level of BBSRC investment is detailed
in Table 1 (Annex A), which includes responsive mode grants, equipment
grants, Institute projects supported from the CSG and studentships
and fellowships. The table covers biomass researchincluding
projects on population biology, modelling of productivity and
the plant's responses to the environmentand research into
light harvesting by photosystems, classified under "Solar".
Despite BBSRC's interest in photosynthesis as a potential system,
it is not supporting projects on this aspect directly. It is,
however, supporting high quality basic research on light harvesting
by photosystems. Table 1 indicates that BBSRC has invested significantly
in this area, spending over £1 million per annum in each
of the past four and current financial years. Research into light
harvesting by photosystems is predominantly through grants and
studentships awarded to higher education institutions. The key
UK groups in this field are based at University College London,
Imperial College and the Universities of Sheffield and Glasgow.
5. Rothamsted Research (formerly The Institute
of Arable Crops Research) has ongoing research on willows (Salix
spp.) as a renewable energy source; these are fast growing trees
managed as short-rotation coppice (SRC). The Institute's Long
Ashton site houses the National Willow Collection (National Collection
of Salix spp) which contains over 1,000 varieties of commercially
important willows. This collection has recently been propagated
and reproduced at Rothamsted. Research at the Long Ashton Research
Station (LARS) has covered the full cycle from planting to utilisation
using environmentally favourable technologies. In particular,
researchers have been working to develop new high-yielding varieties
more resistant to pests and diseases and integrated management
techniques, which reduce or eliminate the need for fungicides
and insecticides. Pests and disease can reduce SRC yields by up
to 40%, but economic, technical and environmental considerations
make the routine use of chemical controls impractical. A significant
recent output from the Long Ashton work is a high density genetic
map of the willow genome that incorporates genes for pest and
disease resistance as well as agronomic traits such as plant habit
and biomass accumulation. The Institute also undertakes work on
willow agronomy. This includes a series of experiments funded
by the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) looking at site preparation
and management options. The work at LARS has also been supported
by DTI, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and
the International Energy Agency (IAE). In addition to work on
Salix, the Institute has the longest running experiments in the
UK on the productivity and comparative performance of different
perennial grasses including Miscanthus and reed canary grass.
The DTI and EU have funded this work.
6. The Silsoe Research Institute (SRI) is
undertaking one project, supported in full by DEFRA as part of
the Holsworthy project. The work is in the area of centralised
anaerobic digestion (CAD) and involves ensuring the project achieves
its environmental objective of net reduction of total life cycle
emissions. In the past, SRI has contributed to R&D on harvesting,
storage and drying of biomass crops, including work on storage
of willow biomass as a contribution to the ARBRE project.
7. All elements of RD&D require sustained
and long-term support. Taking biomass as an example, willow breeding
is a long-term, labour intensive and expensive venture. To produce
a marketable variety can take up to 10 years from the time of
the initial cross.
8. Using plants as sources of energy offers
the potential for partial replacement of fossil fuels, thus contributing
to mitigation of global warming, and to the Government's objective
to increase the proportion of energy derived from renewable sources.
Plant material can be used as a source of energy in several ways
Direct generation of electricity
through combustion of either specially grown crops or plant residues
such as straw or forestry wastes.
As a source of various forms of fuel
(gases, liquids or solids) through processes such as gasification
or pyrolysis. Again these can either use specially grown crops
As direct sources of liquid fuels
with applications in transport, particularly rapeseed methyl ester
(RME or biodiesel) or ethanol. Ethanol can either be used to replace
petrol or, more likely, is blended with it. Such liquid fuels
may be either natural products or those produced in crop plants
through genetic recombination.
9. Bioenergy crops or biofuels are sometimes
termed " CO2 neutral", as discussed above.
To assess the actual carbon cost of any particular strategy it
is necessary to calculate a full carbon budget covering all steps
in the process. However, even with this caveat, biofuels will
often represent a significant net saving of fossil carbon emissions
especially if (a) processing and transport is kept to a minimum
and (b) agrochemical inputs, especially nitrogen fertiliser, are
kept to a minimum. At present most information is available on
the perennial grass Miscanthus and willows grown as SRC.
However there is evidence that other perennial grasses such as
switchgrass and reed canary grass may offer advantages. Research
is required on the following topics:
10. Research on the behaviour of the various
plant materials when subjected to combustion, pyrolysis or gasification
in order to maximise energy output and minimise undesirable emissions
to the environment (eg oxides of nitrogen or sulphur, persistent
organic compounds such as dioxins). This will better define the
characteristics required in plant materials to be used as feedstock.
It will also interact with the design of suitable combustion or
processing technology. Some research is currently in place including
planned new work funded by EPSRC.
11. Selection of crops, varieties and management
systems for their production to provide materials suitable for
the various different end-uses. This will involve at least two
approaches. First, physiological and genetic studies to identify
and select appropriate traits. Second, agronomic, physiological
and plant nutritional studies to investigate how plant characteristics
of interest are influenced by management practices. The two approaches
are closely linked and genotype x environment interactions are
a key aspect to be investigated in order to select and/or breed
species and varieties suitable for growth in different environments
and for different end uses. The requirements of the various possible
uses are likely to be very different; eg characteristics required
for combustion are likely to be very different from those for
ethanol production. A rather small amount of work is in progress
in this area. Greater research effort is required and it needs
to be well co-ordinated with the range of end-use requirements.
The development of genomics offers great potential to accelerate
studies aimed at identifying valuable traits and selecting or
breeding suitable varieties. In addition, there is potential for
producing transgenic plants which yield fuels having just the
right characteristics. There is scope for greater research effort
into the feasibility of this approach, taking into account potential
issues of public concern.
12. In addition to traits connected with
plant characteristics for different end uses, more traditional
agronomic traits are also of great importance. These include maximising
growth rate and yield, minimising the need for agrochemical inputs
(already low for perennial bioenergy crops), maximising resistance
to pests and diseases (appears to be good for the perennial grasses
and much progress has been made for willows) and selecting for
a range of harvest times. The latter point is of practical importance
in achieving a constant supply of materials for generating stations
throughout the year, thus minimising the need for storage. For
example, at present Miscanthus is harvested in mid-winter;
this can lead to difficulties with machinery access to land due
to wet soil, and difficulties with the storage of wet material.
13. A specific characteristic of perennial
biofuel crops that requires research is the extent to which they
deposit organic carbon into soil as roots or root exudates. There
is preliminary evidence from Miscanthus that the amount
may be considerable. There is increasing recognition internationally
that sequestration of carbon in soils can contribute to carbon
mitigation, at least in the short- medium-term. Indeed the mechanism
is now included in the Kyoto Protocol. Sequestration can be included
in national greenhouse gas budgets that have to be drawn up under
the terms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC). It is logical to obtain data on this mechanism
for bioenergy crops (and other crops) and, if it proves to be
of potential significance, to include carbon input to soil as
a trait for selection in breeding. Issues to be addressed include:
(a) the quantity of organic carbon deposited (b) the extent to
which it is stabilised in soilcovering the chemical composition
of roots and exudates and whether certain species have particularly
deep roots which would be expected to be long lived in soil (c)
whether a large deposition of carbon into soil competes with above-ground
14. Environmental, ecological and economic
research is required on the impacts (positive and negative) of
bioenergy crops within managed landscapes. The proposed cross-Council
"Rural Economy and Land Use" initiative intends to look
at some of these issues. Some benefits that have been proposed
Carbon sequestration in soil beneath
the crops. Of particular relevance to perennial species
Rehabilitation of arable soils that
have become low in organic matter content due to long periods
Role in protection of water from
pollution. Leaching of nitrate from Miscanthus has been
shown to be very low. Willows are sometimes grown in wetlands
adjacent to rivers as a means of protecting the river from nitrate
or phosphate inputs.
Increased biodiversity in perennial
biofuel crops compared with annual arable crops.
A new source of rural income.
A productive use of land in the light
of over-production of traditional agricultural crops.
15. Negative impacts are also possible;
those suggested include:
Water use by large areas of biofuel
crops within a catchment causing lowering of the water table.
Decreased biodiversity caused by
large areas of monoculture.
16. There is currently little research to
investigate the processes involved or to quantify the effects,
whether positive or negative.
17. Finally, much work could be undertaken
around issues such as harvesting, transport, processing, storage
18. There is the potential to develop novel
solar cells based on an improved understanding of the primary
reactions of photosynthesis. This is a long-term proposition requiring
input from a range of disciplines eg chemistry, biochemistry,
cell biology, physics and engineering. The Government needs to
be prepared to invest in these more speculative, long-term ventures
as well as those nearer to market. At present, BBSRC's investment
relates to underpinning basic research, though the research groups
receiving BBSRC support for light harvesting studies are fully
aware of the potential downstream application of photosystems
in sustainable (non-carbon) energy production.
19. In terms of basic research, there are
arguments for supporting a broad range of technologies. A balance
needs to be achieved in research to improve existing technologies
and in developing new technologies. Alongside the basic research,
it is important to assess the economic viability of various types
of technology. This needs to be a continuing process as the economic
climate changes and as the technologies become more efficient.
A range of alternatives is important as future economic conditions
may favour one technology over another. In addition, the UK may
need to look at different technologies for different sectors of
the community ie a move to localised energy supply.
OF RD&D FOR
20. For biomass research, the skills base
is potentially very broad as it can draw on the plant science
and agriculture communities eg plant breeding, agronomy. That
said, there is concern amongst these communities that the research
base is declining, particularly in the more traditional disciplines
of biochemistry and physiology.
21. There is also scope for material scientists
in understanding and improving the performance of biological materials
for industrial purposes. Engineering skills, for example, to improve
the performance of crop production systems (harvesting, drying
and processing) and for power station construction and operation.
Modelling skills, in particular, are needed in the assessment
of biomass against other forms of land use and in the context
of the total energy and ecological and environmental impact of
the whole production and utilisation cycle.
22. In practice, the long-term and routine
nature of the research is a deterrent, particularly for the academic
community, which is output-driven. Research on innovative technologies
is potentially more attractive. Many of the skills described above
reside in Research Council Institutes, which are a more natural
home for mid to long-term research on renewables.
23. BBSRC-sponsored institutes engaged in
this research have found prioritisation of funding to be the main
limitation on increased effort. The majority of funding over the
last 10 years has been from DTI and the former ETSU, which means
the work has been of a more applied nature. DEFRA has supported
some work on willow breeding but most has been left to small,
private companies. This has led to a short-term view of requirements.
RD&D IS FORMULATED,
24. BBSRC's policy for energy research is
contained within its policy on sustainable development. BBSRC's
Strategic Plan outlines in broad terms its interest in sustainability.
25. The Councils worked together closely
to put forward a bid under SR2002 for a joint initiative "Towards
a Sustainable Energy Economy" (Annex B). Discussions have
already been undertaken to consider a way forward in respect of
the recommendations of the Chief Scientific Advisor's "Energy
Research Review". In particular, the Councils have been developing
a proposal for an energy research centre, based on a "hub
and spoke" model. This will act as focus for RD&D and
will be required to have strong links with other interested parties,
such as Government Departments, Agencies, the proposed Sustainable
Energy Policy Unit and the devolved administrations (Annex B).
26. The nature of RD&D in this area
dictates that a more strategic, long-term view is required if
a sustainable industry is to be established.
ENERGY RD&D AND
27. Around £628 million was committed
to energy research under the EU Framework V programme. It is also
incorporated under a number of priority thematic areas for Framework
VI. These areas are developed following wide consultation.