News and events:

Great British Bioscience: Bioenergy

Great British Bioscience: Bioenergy - 21 May 2014. iStock
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

BBSRC has supported world-leading bioscience for over two decades. In a series of articles during its 20th anniversary, we will be exploring a variety of ways that BBSRC helps to deliver impact from research. In this article we look at bioenergy.

Why is this area important?

Bioenergy is the use of biological resources including plants, algae, marine life, fungi and micro-organisms, for producing renewable energy (including biofuels).

Bioenergy is one of a range of renewable energy sources that can contribute to addressing the global issues associated with climate change, energy security, population growth and a global increase in per capita energy demand.

Increasing the deployment of advanced bioenergy within the UK will play an important part in helping the UK to achieve its ambitious targets for reductions in green-house gas emissions, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. Replacement liquid transportation fuels will have a particularly important role to play in achieving these aims.

BBSRC identified bioenergy as a high-level priority area in a 2006 report, Review of Bioenergy Research, and confirmed this in its Strategic Plan 2010-2015 The Age of Bioscience.

BBSRC's interests are focused on supporting research projects that aim to develop liquid transportation fuels (biofuels), biogases and biologically generated electricity produced via biological processes and utilising a wide range of different biological feedstocks including: algae, crop residues, food and municipal waste, animal wastes and perennial biomass.

BBSRC does not fund research to produce bioenergy from food crops diverted from the food chain, but does fund work on crop residues, such as straw, as biofuel feedstocks.

How has BBSRC contributed over the last 20 years?

BBSRC has funded research in many areas along the bioenergy production chain to develop sustainable, biologically produced advanced liquid transportation fuels and/or biogases.

BBSRC has also funded translational research into the application of fundamental science to the production of biofuels and value-added co-products, developing new biorefinery technologies, the use of alternative feedstocks, growth and development of energy crops and novel approaches to producing advanced biofuels.

BBSRC has worked to successfully promote and support collaborations between the research community and funders. For example in in 2008 BBSRC launched the Integrated Biorefinery Technologies Initiative (IBTI) to work with the Bioscience for Business Knowledge Transfer Network and 10 businesses to accelerate biorefinery research, and in 2009 the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC) was established. Representing a £20M investment from BBSRC with an additional £4M from industry, the centre brought together six world-class research programmes and 14 leading industrial associates.

BBSRC chairs the RCUK Energy Programme Bioenergy Strategy Coordination Group, which includes representatives from five Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board as well as external representatives from the research community. The group provides coordination and focus for sustainable bioenergy research, to ensure that research funded across these organisations delivers maximum impact and benefits.

BBSRC is also a partner in the ERA-Net Bioenergy programme which coordinates bioenergy research through the collaboration of national funding agencies and the funding of transnational bioenergy research programmes across seven European member countries. In 2011 BBSRC launched a joint call with the Indian Government Department of Biotechnology (DBT) for up to £10M for bioenergy projects between the UK and India.

In 2013 BBSRC worked with Sciencewise to develop a new dialogue process, leading to the publication of the "BBSRC Bioenergy Dialogue". This explored public views regarding bioenergy so that they could be considered by BBSRC. Overall those who took part saw bioenergy as a key part of our energy needs in the future.

In March 2014 BBSRC coordinated the first cross- Research Council International Bioenergy Conference in Manchester. This attracted over 300 delegates from across the bioenergy research community and industry.

What has changed and how has BBSRC influenced this?

Through work in the UK and in collaboration with overseas partners BBSRC researchers have contributed to advances in technology, new techniques and emerging scientific fields and have influenced the direction of bioenergy research at a global scale.

BBSRC has worked hard to establish the UK positions in international bioenergy research. A strong and growing research community with good links to industry has been established via BSBEC and IBTI, and BBSRC has seen a strong growth in international collaborations and actively looks to enhance links with key bioenergy countries such as Brazil.

By working with stakeholders including the research community, other research funders, industrial partners and Government, BBSRC has contributed to the Government's 2012 Bioenergy Strategy, the 2012 Low Carbon Innovation Coordination Group Bioenergy Technology Innovation Needs Assessment and a number of calls for evidences.

With the establishment of the IB Catalyst and BBSRC Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB) in 2013/2014, BBSRC continues to invest in bioenergy research ensuring the scientific expertise built up over previous investments continues to have impact in this important field. Chaired by BBSRC and building on the success of the International Bioenergy Conference, the RCUK Energy Programme Bioenergy Strategy Coordination Group looks to engage with other stakeholders and enhance the opportunities for multi-disciplinary research.

BBSRC has recognised that sustainable bioenergy will require the integration of multiple disciplines from plant development and propagation, agronomy, harvesting and storage to pre-processing, processing, refining, distribution and blending, together with the underpinning science to support these operations.

There are strong links with BBSRC's strategy of Exploiting New Ways of Working (ENWW) through the use of genomic, systems biology and synthetic biology approaches to bioenergy, and to industrial biotechnology.

Milestones

  • 2006: BBSRC publishes the Review of Bioenergy Research report which recognises BBSRC's unique position to contribute to bioenergy research
  • 2008: The Integrated Biorefinery Technologies Initiative (IBTI) Club is launched
  • 2009: The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC) is established
  • 2012: Researchers from the BBSRC strategically-funded Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) and partners publish the Miscanthus genome
  • 2013: The BBSRC Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB) are established to boost interaction between the academic research base and industry
  • 2014: BBSRC co-organises the first International Bioenergy Conference in Manchester, attracting hundreds of delegates from across the bioenergy research community

What next?

The BBSRC Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy were announced in December 2013 and will become established this year.

The networks bring together academia and business to develop research projects with the potential to overcome major challenges including within the bioenergy arena.

The networks will drive new ideas to harness the potential of biological processes to produce and process materials, biopharmaceuticals, chemicals and bioenergy. The networks will then work with industries to investigate these research challenges further.

Funding is also available to support a range of small proof of concept research projects, to demonstrate potential benefits for end user industries.

Many of these ideas and collaborative links will build into the next phase: the Industrial Biotechnology (IB) Catalyst, funded by BBSRC, the Technology Strategy Board and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to support the development of ideas from concept to commercialisation.

Two calls for IB Catalyst funding will be held in 2014.

The catalyst will offer £45M funding to support major integrated research projects involving academic and business communities that will offer clear commercial potential.

Production of liquid and gaseous biofuels is one of the main challenge areas that the IB Catalyst seeks to address. The networks will form a central part of BBSRC's strategy to support the development of bioenergy as a key component of the UK bioeconomy, and will help to provide sustainable processes for producing bio-based alternatives to fuels which currently rely on petrochemicals.

ENDS