Department of Biological and Medical Sciences

Brookes awarded £285,688 for groundbreaking biofuel research

Monday, 02 December 2013

ICGEB 2013 Delhi Workshop on Metabolic Modelling

The UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research council (BBSRC) has announced a £1.4 million project to utilise rice straw waste to make biofuels, with significant input from Oxford Brookes academics.

The UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research council (BBSRC) has announced a £1.4 million project to utilise rice straw waste to make biofuels, with significant input from Oxford Brookes academics. Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, announced this during his recent visit to India. The project is being run by a consortium which includes Oxford Brookes’ Professor David Fell and Dr Mark Poolman, from the Cell Systems Modelling research group, and is led by the University of Nottingham. Funding worth £285,688 will come to Oxford Brookes. 

David Fell’s successful grant is a follow on from previous BBSRC collaboration work. In 2011 he was invited to meet leading scientists in India. As a result David applied for and received a BBSRC India Partnering award, which has since started, and involves trips to Delhi for David and colleagues. He said: "We have already developed a real synergy with our Indian colleagues with the initial funding from the BBSRC India Partnering Award, so I am very pleased that we will be able to work together on a much more substantive project with this new funding."

The aim of the current project is to utilise rice straw waste to make biofuels, via a process which will synthesise butanol and then later alkanes, chemicals that are more similar to biodiesel. David Fell and Mark Poolman will develop a metabolic model of the micro-organism Geobacillus, that can be used for designing the modifications which allow the bacterium to synthesise biofuel from rice straw. Partners in India will work on developing the fermentation processes to develop the production of biofuel. This raises the possibility that this process could both generate biofuels and reduce a waste disposal problem in India, leading the way in sustainable bioenergy research. 

Rice straw is a good choice for this project as the call for grant applications specifically ruled out using crop land or foodstuffs. Rice straw is a problematic waste product in India; the combination of low nutritional value and high silica content make it unsuitable as an animal feed. It also makes a poor choice to be simply burned for fuel as the silica causes fine clogging ash to be produced. It is anticipated that when the biofuel process is proven for rice straw, it will be applicable to wheat straw in the UK also. 

Professor Nigel Minton, Project Lead at the University of Nottingham, said: "Rice is the third biggest crop grown in the world and the major staple crop for most tropical nations. Rice straw, left over from rice harvests in large quantities, doesn't have many agricultural uses and so hundreds of millions of tons is burned to dispose of it each year. This is wasteful and polluting, particularly if rice straw could be used to create biofuels."

The award is a result of the Sustainable Bioenergy and Biofuels (SuBB) initiative funded by the BBSRC in the UK and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in India. In total, over £4 million of UK funding, with matched resource from India, was awarded to four internal research projects that bring together expertise in sustainable bioenergy and biofuels from both countries. 

Professor Jackie Hunter, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "This funding has enabled cross-disciplinary projects that underpin the generation and implementation of sustainable, advanced, bioenergy in order to address the urgent need to find alternatives to fossil fuels."

Image shows ICGEB 2013, Delhi Workshop on Metabolic Modelling, October 2013
Professor David Fell (back row, 3rd from right), Dr Mark Poolman (back row, 4th from right)