New Fermentation Process set to Revolutionise Bioenergy Production

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Biosource Ltd was set up to exploit the bioenergy anaerobic fermentation process.

An innovative new process that uses anaerobic microorganisms and mimics the digestive processes of ruminants such as cattle and sheep is set to make a major advance in the way organic waste and biomass crops are converted into bio-fuels.

A new company called Biosource Ltd has been created to exploit the new process – involving a tubular bioreactor – which was developed at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in collaboration with Professor Mike Theodorou, formerly of Aberystwyth University, a microbiology expert on cow and sheep gut function.

Biosource is targeting the increasingly important and growing market in the UK for Anaerobic Digestion [AD] facilities – where organic waste is broken down using a range of micro-organisms and turned mainly into bio-energy– a market which is conservatively estimated to be worth £4.5billion per year in the UK alone.

Mike Theodorou says: “The UK creates around 40million tonnes of organic waste each year much of which ends up in landfills. But with a more sustainable way of life and climate-change high on political and social agendas, the global thrust for new ways of creating fuels from biomass is gathering pace.

“One of the key challenges we faced was how to create a system that converts biomass and produces energy in a continuous rather than batched way – which requires large tanks to develop an end-product and is relatively inefficient. Until now, development of continuous [not batched] fermentation processes have proved difficult due to the design (conventionally a tank and not a tube) of the bioreactor. Now, after three years’ research and development, we have overcome the design challenge and in doing so, believe that we have created a system that can deliver anaerobic digestion and bioenergy via a continuous process and, most importantly, in a cost-effective and scalable way.

“Our system is able to culture microorganisms in a tubular reactor causing the break-down of waste biomass materials via anaerobic digestion. The process uses a novel mixing technology and is so efficient that the bioreactor required for the process is of a much more manageable and affordable scale. We believe it’s a major advance in how to create bioenergy from organic waste.”

Early prototypes have shown that the system is highly scalable – meaning it will work equally well when applied in small, medium or large processing facilities.

The anaerobic process designed by Biosource has been already granted a UK licence and has patents pending. Biosource is a company spun-in to the Aberystwyth University Campus created by CPI Innovation Services Ltd, the commercial wing of the Centre for Process Innovation [CPI], based at Wilton on Teesside – a UK centre of excellence dedicated to supporting innovation and growth in the UK’s chemical, bio-chemical and printed electronics industries. It will help commercialise the new process which has also received funding from the Welsh Assembly Government.

Lesley Griffiths, Welsh Assembly Government Deputy Minister for Science, Innovation and Skills, visited the Aberystwyth based company earlier this year and said she was delighted to hear of this latest development.

“Energy and environment and Life Sciences, which include biotechnology, are amongst the key sectors for economic growth highlighted in the Assembly Government’s recently launched Economic Renewal: A New Direction.

“Biosource is an excellent example of a business that straddles these sectors and I am pleased that the Assembly Government has supported the research and development element of its work on Anaerobic Digestion.

“Innovation is a key driver of economic growth and we are encouraging businesses to invest in R&D and to harness the commercial opportunities of innovation and research. New ways of creating bioenergy using renewable resources and anaerobic digestion have the potential to make a considerable impact on the economy as well as helping to create a more sustainable future – two key priorities for the Welsh Assembly Government.”

Mike Theodorou has also recently accepted a post at Durham University as its lead academic in anaerobic fermentation – with a focus on investigation and commercialisation of new anaerobic fermentation technologies and processes. His position as CPI Chair of Industrial Biotechnology has been specially created to bring commercial focus to new technologies and innovations in anaerobic fermentation.

CPI’s Director of Sustainable Processes and Advanced Manufacturing, Dr Chris Dowle, who is also a Biosource Director, says that the current ways of dealing with organic waste are very wasteful and in need of redirection. He says: “The way we deal with organic waste in this country is simply not sustainable – annually, we are sending billions of pound worth of organic matter to landfill which could be re-used. Biosource’s technology aims to give that waste a valuable second life by breaking it down in a far more efficient and cost-effective way than is currently available and turning it into energy.

“Both the Government and the scientific community recognise that variants of AD technology are going to play a crucial role in our future energy mix. Advancements at Biosource could give the UK an edge both in terms of developing a commercially competitive process and through the improvement of its environmental performance, so the future is incredibly bright for the company.”

The Biosource process could also be an answer to one of the big global conundrums currently testing the consciences of governments and technologists – how do you create enough bioenergy without stopping the production of important food crops?

Mike Theodorou explains: “With our process focusing on bioenergy production from the conversion of cellulose and hemicellulose crop residues and recycled organic waste, there is no need to dedicate agricultural land to the sole production of bioenergy crops. Appropriately processed municipal household waste and the crop residues left behind after harvesting for food production can both be used to generate bioenergy, thereby, avoiding the problem of growing crops for fuel that could be used for food.”

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