Turning agricultural waste into clean energy
Biomass (plant, animal and organic material) has enormous potential for providing us with sustainable, low-carbon bioenergy – yet, across the world, most of it is used unsustainably for fuel-wood. Extending our focus from national to international is giving University of Manchester bioenergy research a far greater impact on the planet.
Global problem: greenhouse gas emissions from biomass burning
The UK has the potential to generate up to 44% of its energy from biomass sources, including household waste, agricultural residues and home-grown biofuels by 2050.
However, this country represents a tiny proportion of the global annual biomass use – and reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale is the biggest sustainability challenge facing the world today.
A large variety of biomass sources exist worldwide – from farming by-products like crops and manure to household waste and sea algae – yet it often remains untapped. In Asia, for example, rice farming produces about 550 million tonnes of straw residue every year; but this potential fuel source is simply burnt in the fields, resulting in airborne emissions that are hazardous to human and ecosystem health.
Manchester solution: interdisciplinary research with real impact
Our researchers are already helping rural communities in Vietnam, Colombia and sub-Saharan Africa to turn agricultural residues – like rice straw, coffee husks and sugar cane residues – into sustainable energy sources.
"The interdisciplinary approach we have at Manchester is unique and essential. Looking not only at the technology, but also at local energy demands, we can maximise the probability of creating sustainable bioenergy in different communities across the world."Professor Patricia Thornley / Director of the SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub
Now we’re working with industry partners NextGen Ltd and Qube Renewables to build a pilot processing plant in the Philippines that turns rice straw into clean energy.
Our multidisciplinary approach tackles logistical, technological and environmental issues, works sympathetically with the priorities and preferences of local social networks, and continually shares our results at both a local and global level. While laboratory results confirm when greenhouse gas reductions are made, our stakeholder interviews indicate that we can scale our solutions to deliver tangible benefits to local communities, thereby maximising uptake and success.
She says: “The interdisciplinary approach we have at Manchester is unique and essential. Looking not only at the technology, but also at local energy demands, we can maximise the probability of creating sustainable bioenergy in different communities across the world.
“If we are to deliver significant greenhouse gas reductions, the breakthrough comes from looking at the biggest global uses and improving them in a way that people will actually deploy, because it delivers what they need as well as meeting global sustainability objectives.”
Turning different biomass sources in diverse global communities into sustainable, clean energy means:
- rural communities and ecosystems worldwide benefit from cleaner energy and cheaper, sustainable disposal of excess waste, creating a more equitable distribution of green energy worldwide;
- local communities and entrepreneurs participate in community energy systems and decision making;
- we maximise the impact of Manchester research on global greenhouse gas emissions, helping to create a cleaner, greener planet.
Find out more
Read the research papers:
- 'Securing a bioenergy future without imports', Energy Policy, Vol 68, 2014
- 'Generating a positive energy balance from rice straw using anaerobic digestion', Energy Report, Vol 2, 2016
- 'More than food or fuel. Stakeholder perceptions of anaerobic digestion and land use; a case study from the United Kingdom', Energy Policy, 2016
- 'Reasonable potential for GHG savings by anaerobic biomethane in Germany and UK derived from economic and ecological analyses', Applied Energy, 2016
- 'Sweet energy – Bioenergy integration pathways for sugarcane residues. A case study of Nkomazi, District of Mpumalanga, South Africa', Renewable Energy, 2017
Meet the researchers:
- Professor Patricia Thornley, Professor of Sustainability Energy Systems
- Dr Mirjam Röder, Research Fellow
- Dr Andrew Welfle, Research Associate
- Dr Paul Gilbert, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change Mitigation
Thanks to our research funders for their support: EPSRC, DFID, Innovate UK.