Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 directed

  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 for farmers.

  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 research—including projects on population biology, modelling of productivity and the plant's responses to the environment—and 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 including:

    —  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 or residues.

    —  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 soil—covering 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 crop yield.


  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 include:

    —  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 of cropping.

    —  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 and combustion.

  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.


  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.


  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.


  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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 11 April 2003