Applied bioenergy: Taking it a step further

Written by: RWW | Published:

The European Bioenergy Research Institute at Aston University is developing innovative bioenergy technology solutions, such as the Pyroformer, to help meet the UK’s energy targets while offering environmental benefits and collaboration opportunities for sectors such as energy from waste. Tim Miller, director of operations, European Bioenergy Research Institute, reports.

The increase in the amount of municipal and industrial waste produced across Europe over the past few years is alarming. According to WRAP, households currently throw away £12bn of edible food away each year - that equated to around seven million tonnes of food in 2009/10. But this accounts for only 50% of the problem; figures also reveal that food, drink and packaging waste in the UK supply chain is about 6.6m tonnes a year and costs £5bn. 

At the same time, targets to increase the security of energy supply and reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been set for all EU member states, with the UK committed to achieving a 15% share of renewable energy by 2020. Ambitious reduction targets for the UK’s CO2 levels - 35% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 - have also been agreed. 

Developing a combined solution to tackle the UK’s waste problem and ensure energy security is clearly an enormous challenge. 

Achieving these targets will require a near 300% increase in renewable energy production before the end of the decade, with bioenergy set to contribute more than 50% of this required increase. 

The bioenergy sector is one of the fastest growing markets, with potential to create new economic growth in Europe’s regions. 

However, to meet energy demand using existing bioenergy technologies would require a volume of biomass four times the height of London’s Big Ben. 

So how can we tackle waste and ensure energy security without jeopardising both people and planet? 

The good news is that the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) at Aston University in Birmingham is pioneering tangible solutions and advancing bioenergy research and technologies at a rapid rate.

EBRI research

Aston University has been committed to the research and development of bioenergy solutions since the 1970s and in 2008 EBRI was established as an EU Centre of Excellence in applied bioenergy technology. In October 2013 a purpose-built new state-of-the-art facility was opened on Aston University’s Birmingham city centre campus.

EBRI carries out world-class bioenergy research, ranging from fundamental laboratory research and development through to the deployment of innovative technologies, with its team of internationally renowned researchers focused on methods of generating energy from biomass. Examples of research currently taking place include:

Anaerobic digestion: Using different anaerobic bacterial groups and archea to degrade organic molecules into biogas and then converted into heat and power in an engine

Algae cultivation: Exploring the exploitation of microalgae for reduction of waste and bioenergy production. There is a growing interest in algae oil as a source of biofuel, with sources coming from a range of habitats, from marine and freshwater environment to desert sand and from hot springs to snow and ice 

Catalysis: Key to meeting the challenges of a bio-based chemicals industry, as over 90% of global chemical output relies upon heterogeneously catalysed processes 

Combined heat and power (CHP) engines: Adaption of CHP engines (internal combustion engines) for bioenergy provision

Feedstock investigation: Testing and analysis of feedstocks for fuel production (such as sewage sludge, rice and wheat husks, miscanthus and food production residues)

Gasification: Optimisation of technology and feedstocks to improve the range of materials that can be used in gasification and to improve the economics of gasifier projects 

Pyrolysis: Research into slow, intermediate and fast pyrolysis processes has been taking place at Aston for many years. EBRI is a leader in fast and intermediate pyrolysis technology, which as the names suggest, is quick; heating biomass in seconds and turning 75% of the weight of the original feed into liquid, which can be used directly as an energy carrier or for heat and power, or upgraded into transport fuels. 

Pyroformer technology

EBRI researchers have developed a Pyroformer (pictured), which uses intermediate pyrolysis to uniquely transform multiple waste and residue sources into cost effective heat and power. An industrial scale demonstration plant was recently opened on the Aston University campus where it provides the heat, electricity and cooling needed to power EBRI’s building.

The first of its kind in the UK, this technology is a low carbon, renewable and sustainable energy source. Unlike other bioenergy plants, the Pyroformer has no negative environmental or food security impacts. 

It can use multiple waste sources and therefore does not require the destruction of rainforests or the use of agricultural land for the growth of specialist bioenergy crops. 

Biochar - one of its by-products - can also be used as a fertiliser to increase crop yields, meaning that the process is carbon negative, as 25% of carbon can be saved. 

What can EBRI do for industry?

EBRI is keen to deepen links with academia, industry and government, both in the UK and worldwide, to provide business solutions, explore the benefits of bioenergy and make sure that its research has practical applications. In addition, it is looking to develop strategic partnerships with major research centres and companies around the world, to widen its impact and reach.

EBRI has six bioenergy laboratories which are available for feedstock, power and equipment testing. Research equipment includes photo bioreactors harnessing algae, thermal reactors, bench and laboratory scale pyrolysers, gasifiers, combustors, catalytic refiners for biorefinery and the synthesis of fuels and fluidised bed reformers.

The development of bioenergy technology is a priority particularly for the West Midlands, where EBRI is based, as geographical constraints limit the region’s potential to generate renewable energy from alternative technologies such as wind, marine and tidal power. 

To address this EBRI has secured funding from the European Regional Development Fund to provide a focal point for regional business support and technology transfer and growth opportunities. 

This ERDF funding is enabling EBRI to give free support to organisations in the West Midlands to help them understand the market opportunity and develop innovative bioenergy solutions for their business.

EBRI is also working to create a much needed bioenergy supply chain in the region. 

Sourcing waste for biomass from within the UK to run bioenergy technologies without having to transport it long distances is crucial for the future. EBRI is looking for West Midlands businesses which produce waste such as food and agricultural waste, sewage sludge, manure and biomass to give them their waste for testing.

What more is needed to bring bioenergy into the mainstream? EBRI researchers are developing new technologies that offer significant energy efficiency and profit gains, but further support is now needed to make this innovative work a viable and sustainable energy source, reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and provide an effective waste management solution.

The case for more government investment and policy support for new technologies such as the Pyroformer is strong. 

Bioenergy offers significant business, as well as environmental benefits. 

In 2009 the government estimated that the global market for low carbon goods and services was worth around £3 trillion a year and could be worth £4.5 trillion by 2015. 

Through multiple collaborations, EBRI hopes to build an awareness of bioenergy solutions as alternatives to large scale industrial bioenergy involving the destruction of trees and as a solution to pressing waste and energy needs. 

EBRI is proving that real-life solutions for tackling biomass-based waste and residues can be achieved, with both environmental and financial benefits for households, businesses and local authorities, as well as opportunities for wider industry collaboration. 

- To find out more about collaboration, testing and business support opportunities with EBRI, contact or visit


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