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The innovator

Birmingham-based European Bioenergy Research Institute is looking to work closely with industry to foster innovation in new energy technologies. Andrea Lockerbie reports

When the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) opened its new facilities at Aston University last October, the University’s vice chancellor, Professor Dame Julia King, hailed it as “a critical component in enabling the UK to become more energy efficient, and to reduce our current reliance on fossil fuels, imports, and volatile energy markets”.

As Tim Miller, EBRI director of operations, explains, for the past 20 years Aston had been doing a lot of work on chemical engineering, and bioenergy in particular. But opening the centre has allowed it to step away from the purely academic and educational environment and work much more closely with industry - including waste producers, waste management companies and energy companies – on practical solutions.

“We can also work with related disciplines so, if a company comes to us, they usually want a problem solving or for us to look at a problem, and often that needs to be done in a rounded way, rather than a very narrow and focused way,” he explains.

“In the building, we have been able to bring in complementary disciplines: mechanical engineering, which allows us to look at engines and fuels, and how products are used; and our colleagues from the business school, so we can work on business models and look at the viability, the risks, the costs and the profits associated with a particular area of activity.

“Also, to consider the opportunities around the use of waste as a source of products as well as energy - that whole area of bio-products is something else we have brought in,” Miller adds.

The building incorporates some significant equipment that can act as demonstrator and testing equipment for business. It has scaled up its technology to the level where bioenergy is providing electricity, heating and cooling for the building as well as part of the campus. EBRI is also looking at opportunities in experimental projects with the Birmingham district heating scheme.

Miller reckons the facility has probably the largest research gasifier in the UK. It also has combined heat and power engines, a test facility and an energy production facility so it can make sure things work over a long period of time.

In addition, it has major expertise in the use of catalysts which allows it to improve the efficiency of processes and to look to see what materials it can derive from different feedstocks.

One of the areas EBRI is working on is energy management systems, looking at a diversity of feedstocks and then producing fuels relating to a diversity of different power, heating and cooling requirements within different buildings, and also linking that to pyrolysis.

Miller says: “The linkage there is interesting because we are experimenting with usage of different and difficult feedstocks. Part of the work we are doing is taking difficult feedstocks - ranging from sewage sludge to woody clippings of materials through to agricultural residues, industrial residues, a whole range of different materials - processing those through a pyrolysis process and then utilising the vapours which arise from that as a feedstock for the gasifier.

“Energy-creation gasifiers in the past have tended to be quite limited in the type of feedstock they can take in. What we are trying to do is expand it to use the more difficult feedstocks as a viable feedstock for energy production.”

Traditionally, new technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis have faced hurdles with securing funding and feedstock, so will the facility’s work help in this area?

“We think so because, by being able to do a full-scale demonstrator [or campus-based demonstrator] that is able to use these sorts of power generation systems over a long period of time, we think that will, perhaps, overcome some of the issues, and enable us to overcome some of the issues,” says Miller.

“The other thing we have done is work quite extensively with our business school to look at the different business models. We can identify things like the risks associated with funding and with, say, fluctuations and the different types of feedstocks - the things which do cause problems for commercial funding.

“So, by actually being able to pull together different models which can show different levels of viability, we think we may be able to assist in that regard.”

Miller explains that EBRI works on a number of different levels, with a range of services it can provide to companies, from the economic modelling described to more detailed analysis. It can work with companies to identify their opportunities and problems, including funding and the viability of potential expansion or alternative technology ideas.

“Through our connections we have access to different forms of funding. There is actually a huge programme called Horizon 2020, which is worth €97billion (£80bn), and like many universities, we have teams and facilities set up to help us work with companies to access that money, to help explore and to trial and to run ‘proof of concept’ for innovative new technologies,” Miller says.

“So we are keen to work with companies on that, and that funding is increasingly aimed at looking at practical industry solutions.”

Does EBRI see itself working more with waste producers or waste management companies?

“We have worked with quite a few small companies that generate their own waste and are interested in perhaps avoiding the cost of waste disposal and looking to see how they could use that waste productively. That does form quite a big part of what we do.

“But we have also got contacts with a whole range of other companies - in some cases, large energy companies, some waste management companies and also those dealing with quite large residues,” says Miller.

He will not get drawn into naming who it is working with but explains EBRI might look at a question such as how to reduce the carbon impact of a district heating scheme, and the projects and activities around that.

“That is the point at which we would perhaps work with waste management companies that are able to pool together a significant volume of waste to allow us to gain access to significant levels of feedstock. We are looking at the whole,” he explains.

While Miller explains that the university is “very willing and able and interested in working with a whole range of companies” from anywhere in the country and around the world, it is able to offer more support to businesses in the west midlands where it is based, as it has additional funding for this.

Examples of its international work include working with the British Council and the Foreign Office in Indonesia, looking at the waste and residue opportunities; and an experimental project working in the Punjab in India, looking at agricultural waste and residues from rice and wheat production.

The Aston facility offers the opportunity for people to come and see what EBRI is doing and how its work is potentially relevant to them, or could be replicated elsewhere.

Miller says: “The technology also provides the platform for future collaborative development, so there are things that we could do with the technology at an industrial scale that may well be interesting to other companies out there.

“We can demonstrate what we have done so far, but we would also like to be forward looking, and to look at the technology platform as something which we can demonstrate and work at scale on with partner companies to solve some future problems.”

The university has a spin-off company that takes projects forward that are directly commercial, usually more product-orientated.

Miller explains: “If companies came in and said ‘we are really interested in what you are doing and we would like to work with you because we believe there is a commercial opportunity if you were to add these extra components to the kind of facilities you have got’.

“At that point, we would work with them to apply for the funding to put a project together to explore that, collaboratively, and then we would collaboratively exploit the opportunities if they were viable”.

There is also an opportunity in getting businesses to work together, and there is already a project underway looking at this.

“I know there are other people out there doing similar things, so we have to pick our subject quite carefully. But the concept of working with supply chains, looking to see how some of the supply chains could be enabled utilising some of the technology we have got is something which is very interesting,” he says.

EBRI’s purpose it to provide innovation and work much more closely with industry, bringing industry the things it can find difficult to do unless it is a very large company.

Miller says: “The sort of thing we can do is we can work with them to provide access to research and development facilities and research and development teams, exploration and testing facilities to enable them look at things that they would find really quite expensive and difficult to grasp on their own. And what we can also do is often find them government or European funding to help that process.”

As an example, it has some funding from the European Commission which allows it to employ a team of three engineers, and also send some of its academics and students to engineering companies.

“Basically, we are able to do that without cost, so our industry partners are getting the benefit of what is effectively a subsidised or free research team and we can cycle that knowledge through into other companies.”

EBRI is keen to work with partners, it does not need to be a customer relationship, and is open to working with companies with particular interests and expertise.

“The purpose of the funding is to work very much with companies rather than do research - that’s one of the differentiating factors. What we then do is layer over that our research activities and therefore make them relevant to companies.”


About EBRI

In October 2013, the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) opened new facilities at Aston University in Birmingham. This has allowed it to expand its bioenergy research and knowledge transfer activity.

The £16.5m development was funded jointly by the University and the European Regional Development Fund. It provides research suites, laboratories and technology demonstration facilities, as well as a Pyroformer/Gasifier bioenergy plant which provides power, heat and cooling to the building as well as other parts of the University campus.

EBRI has called its Pyroformer a “groundbreaking bioenergy solution” which uses multiple waste sources to generate cost-effective heat and power.

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