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Brunel researchers turn crop and food waste into fuel

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Brunel University researchers are proving that food really is fuel, as part of a revolutionary pilot project that will turn the by-products of agriculture and food processing into biofuel for transport.

A team from Brunel’s Wolfson Centre for Materials Processing are working alongside industrial and academic partners to trial a new Biorefinery Centre, launched on Friday 30 September at the UK’s Institute for Food Research (IFR). The Centre will produce second generation biofuels – fuels that are made from agricultural waste such as straws and from the inedible by-products of food processes such as cereal milling. Using waste rather than specially grown materials removes concerns about the possible competition between growing crops to feed an ever-increasing global population, and crops for biofuel production.

The biofuels produced will be tested by Lotus Engineering, and will have a much lower carbon footprint than traditional fuels as well as a potential performance advantage.

At the heart of the Centre is a steam explosion biorefinery plant. The plant blows apart the cell structure of leftover plant materials, allowing the extraction of sugars which are then fermented with yeast to produce bio-alcohol. The Brunel team are focusing on the pre-treatment of these leftover materials to maximise the efficiency of the biorefinery process.

“Yield depends very much on the first stage treatment,” explained Brunel’s project leader Professor Jim Song. “We are maximising yield at the pre-treatment stage, which makes for high efficiency in the biorefinery plant itself.”

Far from ending there, Brunel’s DEFRA-funded project also extends to the re-use and recycling of the plant’s own by-products. Sugars are locked into the cell structures of the strong, woody parts of plants by a substance called lignin, which cannot be used to produce bio-alcohol. Instead of discarding lignin as waste, the Brunel team are investigating its use as a raw material for fine chemicals such as anti-oxidants, antibacterials, and dispersion surfactants. Making bio-based anti-oxidants from lignin is of particular interest, as there is strong demand for non-synthetic anti-oxidants in the food and cosmetic industries.

The IFR’s Professor Keith Waldron said: “Once the food part of a crop has been exploited, there is a mass of material left behind that is often discarded as waste. With the launch of the pilot plant we have all the expertise necessary to help industry explore ways to make use of it.”

Notes to editors

For more information, please contact:

IFR Press Office
Zoe Dunford, zoe.dunford@nbi.ac.uk, 01603 255111
Andrew Chapple, andrew.chapple@nbi.ac.uk, 01603 251490

Lotus Press Office
Alastair Florance, aflorance@lotuscars.com, 01953 608462

Photo: Jose Carlos Norte