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Southampton scientists to help create a sustainable energy system for the UK

The University of Southampton is playing a key role in a major public/private partnership to evaluate the use of biomass to create a cost effective and sustainable UK energy system for 2050.

Domestic biomass (a renewable energy source from living, or recently living organisms, such as plants, rubbish and wood), sustainably grown in the UK, could provide up to 10 per cent (1) of the UK's energy needs by 2050 and significantly contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Three new bio energy projects launched by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), valued at 4.57 million, are looking to:

  • Establish an in-depth field trial to study ecosystem and sustainability when converting land to bio energy crop production;
  • Explore at an engineering level, the cost-effectiveness, technology challenges and technology developments required for biomass to power combined with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS);
  • Explore the key challenges in developing sustainable UK bio energy supply chains for heat, power, and transport fuels production and consider the best use of UK biomass from an energy security, affordability and GHG reduction perspective.

Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker says: "Bio energy has the potential to play a key role in low carbon energy generation in the future, which is why we need groundbreaking innovation today. These projects being run by the ETI will greatly deepen our understanding of this kind of energy, helping the sector to grow and thrive and ensure the best ideas and research are given every chance to succeed."

The University of Southampton, led by Professor Gail Taylor, will be participating in two of the three projects. The largest of the three projects is the three-year long 3.28 million Ecosystem Land-Use Modelling (ELUM) trial to study the impact of bio energy crop land-use changes on soil carbon stocks and GHG emissions. The University of Southampton team will address the current uncertainties measuring how these energy crops take up carbon dioxide, how much of that is locked up in crop and soil, and how much is released back to the environment.

Dr Matthew Tallis, environmental plant biologist from the University of Southampton, says: "We will achieve this by instrumenting a real commercial energy crop field in Oxfordshire and collect data on carbon flux continuously, over the duration of the project. We have very little idea on how these new second generation crops impact on the net balance of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and they could be a significant improvement compared to land use for other purposes, including arable and grassland crops."

The data will be utilised in bioenergy crop yield models to assess how much carbon captured by the energy crop can be utilised for energy purposes and how much may be held in long-term pools of carbon in the soil or 'sequestered.

In a second project, the nine-month long 835,000 Biomass Systems Value Chain Modelling project, Southampton researchers will focus on estimating the current and future supply of biomass for the UK market, given constraints such as conflict with food, or the nature conservation value of the land, or where other ecosystem services might be negatively affected. In addition, the results of this research will be linked to current scenarios for UK climate change and biomass supply will be predicted forward to 2020 and 2050.

These two projects will help to inform several on-going policy developments for future bioenergy deployment in the UK, with the overall aim to move towards a low carbon economy with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 80 per cent by 2050.

The ETI is a public/private partnership tasked with developing "mass-scale" technologies that will help the UK meet its 2020 and 2050 energy targets. Akira Kirton, the Technology Strategy Manager of the ETI, who launched the projects yesterday at All-Energy in Aberdeen, says: "There are well-known and potentially controversial sustainability issues surrounding the large-scale use of biomass, especially around the subject of land-use change. However, there is the potential for biomass to produce up to 10 per cent of the UK's energy needs and our models suggest that combined with CCS it may be the single most important element in creating a cost effective and sustainable UK energy system for 2050. There has already been extensive research carried out overseas to look at the use of biomass, but nothing on the UK exclusively. These projects will analyse a wide range of biomass crops and energy conversion technologies to inform the development and deployment of effective bio energy solutions, and will also guide the ETI's bio energy strategy and help inform the UK benefits case for the sector."


Contact: Glenn Harris
University of Southampton

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