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Research cash helps innovations to fly

Small scale AD plant

Where there’s muck, there’s brass, goes the old Yorkshire saying.

This may well be true for Sutton-in-Ashfield-based Lindhurst Engineering, after more than five years of research into anaerobic digestion (AD) and the subsequent development of its farm-based AD unit.

Lindhurst’s diversification from servicing the coal mining industry to low-carbon waste management has provided it with an opportunity for both survival and growth. In particular, the company’s application of Government grants, university collaborations and European Horizon 2020 project funding makes it the kind of venture the UK economy needs.

Founded in 1985 in the heart of the north Nottinghamshire coalfield, Lindhurst managed to find new outlets for its fabrication and electrical engineering expertise, including the manufacture of concrete railway sleepers and the build of a mobile art installation for Liverpool. By 2009, owner Martin Rigley was on the lookout for a product of his own after reading about the problems associated with farm waste disposal. So the efficient treatment of waste at the source of its production became his vision.

Early research into AD, helped by two successful bids for Technology Strategy Board grants, meant that Rigley and his team could test the feasibility of a small-scale AD plant. Taking the idea further meant collaborating with the University of Nottingham through Innovate UK’s knowledge transfer partnership scheme in order to build a larger unit to prove it could tackle cow and milk waste.

Lindhurst AD plant

Lindhurst AD plant

The result is an AD system built around the architecture of a microbial fuel cell, which not only handles dairy waste but is designed to use the by-product, biomethane, as well as the digestate. It took five years to get to the point where Lindhurst wanted to prove the technology in sectors other than dairy.

To do this, it worked with TBAT Innovation to secure Horizon 2020 funding under the SME Instrument. This was awarded in November 2015 and will finance the production of five demonstrator units using feedstocks such as brewery waste, ice cream, onions and potatoes. Working with partners in Denmark, Spain, Ireland and the UK, the project runs to November 2017.

The SME Instrument is designed for a single SME business such as Lindhurst, or an SME lead in a collaboration, with a product, process or system ready for demonstration and market exploitation (Technology Readiness Level 6 or above). The business can apply for significant levels of project funding up to £1.8m. Although competition is high, a successful bid is a strong indication that the innovation will fly and be of interest to investors. Lindhurst fitted the criteria well, its research and development has been proven to work, and the commercial potential for the disposal of organic matter is huge.

Assuming a project addresses one of the funding topics, the application must then explain the innovation and how it meets new needs. Evidence of technical risk and global commercial opportunity need to be set out alongside a realistic assessment that the company can deliver the project.

Lindhurst was able to quantify business growth and continued commitment to research and associated investment, so its bid had a strong chance of success. Part of the TBAT Innovation service is to make sure that a project fits the scope of the Horizon 2020 application, and ensure that all project, market and commercialisation information is communicated clearly within the application documents.

Rigley appreciates that applying for such high levels of European funding can be complex and time-consuming. Even when successful, the due diligence process can be daunting. But without such funding, work on the new technology would have ceased. Working with TBAT to access a number of previous grants meant this successful Horizon 2020 application felt like a real team approach.

The Lindhurst venture into organic waste disposal has already secured four jobs and created two new posts, with the possibility of a further two as it moves into deployment.

Matt Symonds is managing director of TBAT Innovation

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