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Video transcript: Biggest ever public investment in bioenergy to help provide clean, green and sustainable fuels

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January 2009

Professor Douglas Kell
The great vision for the centre is to be the world centre for delivering sustainable bioenergy. This is the biggest programme that BBSRC has ever done on any subject. We’re going to produce from it secure sustainable bio-fuels that will replace the petrol in your car now and forever.

One day, in the not too distant future perhaps, fossil fuels are going to run out, and those that don’t run out we may wish to conserve for other purposes. Now is the time for BBSRC to drive the development of alternatives, the rate and efficiency with which they are produced from biomass, which is the only sustainable source of energy on the planet. Unlike fossil fuels which are a net contributor to greenhouse gas generation, biofuels have the possibility of providing transport fuels in particular with no net contribution to greenhouse gasses.

Dr Alf Game
Biofuels are the only viable option we have for replacing petrol, petrochemicals, in transport.

Professor Nigel Minton
And the key difference with the work we are going to be doing in the centre is that we are going to generate these fuels from plant biomass and, in particular, renewable waste or non-food biomass.

Dr Alf Game
The production of biofuels is something that the UK has a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill about, but its compartmentalised in the different interests of the different scientists, so we have excellent crop scientists who understand how to improve the productivity of biofuel crops, we have very good microbial scientists who understand how to break those materials down, and very good engineers who could then use those processes to make liquid fuels. What we don’t have is a community of scientists working together who understand those different processes in order to set this pipeline up and to generate more people with the skills across those areas to do that kind of science.

Dr Angela Karp
This is a really exciting opportunity to be able to build on the research we have been doing and tackle issues of climate change. So our part of the Centre is to concentrate on the crops of willows, fast growing trees and also Miscanthus grass which is a tall exotic grass that also grows extremely quickly.

Dr Andrew Riche (in a field)
Right…this Miscanthus…it produces in a field about 40 stems a metre square. The stems are just under a centimetre in diameter and about three metres tall.

Dr Angela Karp
And the point about these, and this is willow, if you take stick no longer than this (stick about 20cm) and poke it in the ground, within a period of about four years, you get not only one stem but between five and ten stems that are up to five metres in height so taller than this room.

Dr Andrew Riche (in a field)
OK so this is short rotation coppice willow. The plants are planted at quite a close spacing, you can see down there, and then usually harvested every three to five years. They are cut down to about ten centimetres above ground level in the winter.

Dr Angela Karp
So you can imagine a plantation of willow with these stems of five metres high and how much woody biomass that produces in a very small area of land. Now we’re already using woody biomass from crops like willow and Miscanthus to provide our electricity and heat.

What we’d like to do, and this is what our research in the Centre will be focusing on, is also use the woody biomass in the trees and the grasses as a source of raw material for liquid transport fuels for cars and, even in the future, aeroplanes as well.

Now fuels at the moment, liquid transport fuels, can be made from plants but that is coming from sugars or starches or even oils that are readily available in plants and that tends to be food crops. So at the moment, all of our biofuels, as they’re called, that are coming from plants come from food crops because they make readily available sugars that we can easily get hold of. Now, trees and grasses also have sugars but they are locked up in the cells of the stems of these woody stem pieces like this.

Professor Nigel Minton
We have to be able to unlock those sugars from the complex components of the plant material, which is cellulose, and here at Nottingham we are really focused on the actual generation of the bio-fuel for the petrol replacement and my particular focus here in Nottingham is the generation of butanol. OK, so the organism that makes butanol is a bacterium called Clostridia. It currently doesn’t make enough and also it tends to make side products we don’t really want so that one of the main focuses of our programme is to try and create strains which are more efficient at creating butanol, and the second aim is to try and make strains that can better degrade plant cell wall material. Essentially what we are trying to find out is what things that the bacteria like to eat and when they eat it, how efficiently they turn it into butanol.

Professor Katherine Smart
Our part in the programme is to look at the methods by which we might be able to convert inedible plant material into ethanol. So the raw material that we are going to use to produce ethanol which is a replacement for fossil fuels, actually comes from the inedible components of plants so to give you some examples we have actually got some grape stalks here and obviously normally we would throw those away but what we want to do is to be able to release the sugars from this grape stalk and product ethanol from it.

Other materials that come from agriculture are things like this straw here. In order to make the ethanol from the plant sugars we are going to be using one of the most useful microbes that we currently already exploit in several industries including making bread, beer and various other processes and that’s yeast. So in plant materials like this which are not edible, what we find is that there are a lot of sugars that have been locked away and what we are doing in our research is find ways to release these sugars so that the yeast can convert them into ethanol.

So these are very high-tech fermenters actually. They are state of the art in terms of fermentation for laboratory research. Each of the fermenters that you see here are independently controlled so we can use different conditions in each of them. So converting the plant material takes two stages. The first conversion stage as its called is where we take the plant material and make a liquid from it so once we’ve got the liquid and we put it into the fermenter it takes between 48 and 72 hours for that fermentation to complete and what we will want to do is to try and speed up that fermentation whilst making sure that all of the sugars that are available to the yeast are converted into ethanol. So it’s going to be quite a challenge to be able to achieve all of that.

Dr Angela Karp
We will be doing quite a lot of measurements and studying of how these plants grow in order to understand how they capture sunlight and how they convert CO2 into carbon and which are the best efficient plants, how do they do that better, what is it about the plants that helps them do that better? Do they have more leaves, do they have a better canopy and what is it about them? And then we will be using genetic approaches with molecular biology to try to identify the genes underneath those characteristics so we know which genes to select for in breeding programmes.

We will also be doing some biochemistry to see how that relates to the way that the plant puts its carbon in the stem and which parts of the cell walls it puts them in and how it constructs its cell walls. So we are also experimenting with the best ways of actually growing willow in the lab so that we can easily look at their genetics, their biochemistry, aspects about how the grow, really basic plant biology which up ‘til now people haven’t been able to study. So what we have been doing is taking really small pieces of the plant which normally would be impossible to study for example, in the field, and cutting these small pieces out of the plant and then growing them in controlled conditions inside Petri dishes in the laboratory. And we’ve been finding out to do that so we can study the pieces and what it is about them that is different from other plants which enables willow to grow so fast when it’s out there in the field.

Dr Alf Game
£7M of the Centre in the first instance is coming from industry.

Professor Douglas Kell
So we have managed to attract already 15 industrial partners to launch the Centre and what they bring, of course, is a considerable amount of expertise of their own and a recognition that industry is very much of the view that this is going to be an important direction of travel for the developing green economy, green collar jobs and the scientific directions that will be required to ensure that we deliver these things through the Bioenergy Centre. o the UK needs to be at the forefront of bioenergy research for two main reasons. First of all it is that we are very well placed to do so because we have a world leading plant and microbial scientific community and the second is, that actually the sort of things the UK needs are different from those that other parts of the world need and we therefore, need to develop local solutions, bioenergy crops that work particularly well in the UK and that’s what we intend to do.

So the longer term benefits of this kind of work to the UK are lowering our carbon emissions, creating jobs into this new sector and these are so called green collar jobs and there will be, in consequence, a considerable benefit to the UK economy.

ENDS