In this series, we’ve been covering the recipients of the UK’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme to give our readers an overview of the feedstock projects in the industry pipeline. So far, we’ve looked at algae, as well as Miscanthus and hemp (see Parts 1 and 2, respectively), and this week we’ll be detailing the projects using short rotation coppice (or willow), and semi-wild crop in their bid to find the biomass feedstock of our future.
Willow is a tree species of particular interest as it can be genetically modified – a trait that sets it apart from many other varieties of tree. It is also fast growing and ‘clonally propagated’ – allowing for a homogenous grove to be planted.
Semi-wild crops have been identified as a potentially important biomass crop as they grow on marginal land that may not be otherwise conducive to plant growth, and are often found in abundance in rural areas in the UK.
So what projects received funding for their research into these materials?
Short rotation coppice (willow)
Rothamsted Research: AWBD
Rothamsted Research’s AWBD project (Accelerating Willow Breeding and Deployment) does what it says on the tin, with the team looking to accelerate willow cultivation in service of producing fuel for biomass. The team is using genomic selection (GS) to improve existing willow varieties, stimulating yield growth and allowing for clonal propagation to be carried out with confidence that the parent plant selected is the best choice, lowering breeding costs in the process.
Willow Energy: Upscaling UK SRC Willow Planting and Harvesting Capacity
The team at Willow Energy are working to meet the anticipated increase in demand for short rotation coppice (SRC), deploying three innovations to boost yield, harvest the biomass produced and secure the supply chain around the material.
While current SRC harvesting is undertaken by hand, Willow Energy is looking to digitise the process to improve efficacy.
The three innovations that will work in service of this are; a GPS-controlled autonomous willow rod-processing machine, an autonomous SRC willow planting machine, and a purpose-built tracked willow harvester with an attached storage bunker.
University of Surrey Centre for Environment and Sustainability: Soilless cultivation for rapid bioenergy feedstock production
The team at the University of Surrey are developing a means of crop cultivation that does not need soil, instead using the air or mist to grow plants in a process known as aeroponic technology. Such a method is pitched as preferable to soil-based cultivation as it has a smaller land footprint and allows for rapid feedstock production when used for certain plants, with willow showing particular efficacy using this technique.
Energy Crops Consultancy: Proving low ground pressure harvesting equipment in the field to extend SRC willow and poplar wood crops harvesting season
Energy Crops Consultancy, a group specialising in perennial biomass feedstocks, received the funding for its new project looking to modify farming equipment to make it more compatible with cultivating biomass crops. Under the project, machinery such as tractors, harvesters and trailers will be adapted to work on different soil types in different conditions, allowing farmers to also expand the seasons in which they can plant and harvest.
The group will also create a ‘decision tool’ for landowners to identify and assess opportunities to increase SRC willow and poplar crops.
Hennock International: Marginal land biomass harvesting and extraction using drone assisted technology
Hennock International’s project is looking specifically at bracken – a type of large, coarse ferns that the group estimates covers 1.5million hectares of land in the UK, with potential to increase by 30,000 hectares every year.
Harnessing GPS and drone technology, the team will be looking at developing a bracken harvesting system on marginal land – with the tech helping to scope out the terrain and plot the crop accordingly.
Teesdale Environmental Consulting: Teesdale Moorland Biomass
Teesdale’s project is looking at growing heather, an evergreen shrub that grows in upland, acidic soil and is found in most moors in the UK – with around 350,000 hectares of managed heather in England. These managed crops are controlled using grazing and burning – though none of the potential energy from this burning is currently used. The Teesdale project seeks to change this, harnessing the existing management processes to capture heat energy and harvest any potential biomass materials from the crop residue.
Hej Harvester: Harvesting Agricultural Hedges for Biomass Production
This project will be using agricultural hedges as a source of biomass. While these plants are typically seen only as a means of separating fields, harvesting the hedgerows could in fact prove a significant source of biomass – with an estimated 500,000 miles of the plant in the UK.
While current methods of cutting hedgerows is energy intensive and wasteful of the discarded plant sections, the Hej Harvester project will adapt machinery to ensure the hedges are cut in a uniform manner so offcuts can be directly burned for energy, or sold on to biomass users.