Scientists in Wales are developing a new transport fuel made from grass in an attempt to avoid the problems associated with existing biofuels.
The £1 million 'Grassohol' research project aims to produce commercially and economically viable processes to make ethanol from perennial ryegrass - the most commonly sown grass in the UK which is normally used for grazing or silage. It could provide a significant and sustainable economic boost for rural communities and contribute to renewable energy targets while also reducing carbon emissions.
Ryegrasses with high extractable sugar contents will be utilised in the project which will examine the best methods of extracting and fermenting the sugar and of maximising yields and rates of ethanol production. The dried residue after fermentation and distillation is rich in protein and has the potential to be converted into animal feed.
One hectare of grassland could produce up to 4500 litres of ethanol and it is envisaged that local refineries could be established on farms at a similar scale of production to wine co-operatives.
The project is being led by the recently formed Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University. The institute is collaborating with two Welsh companies - Aber Instruments and the Wynnstay Group - and has received £154,000 funding from the Welsh Assembly Government's Academic Expertise for Business (A4B) programme.
Dr Joe Gallagher from IBERS said biofuel production in the UK is currently very limited and the bulk of bioethanol contained in transport fuels sold on UK forecourts is imported. This bioethanol is produced from food crops such as maize, wheat and sugar cane which potentially compromises global food security. The use of ryegrass offers a far more sustainable and acceptable solution that does not compete directly with the food industry. It is cheap and easy to grow, farmers already have the necessary expertise - and equipment - to manage, harvest and store grass.
He said: "Ryegrass is ideally suited to our climate and soil conditions, its cultivation will not affect existing environmentally sensitive landscapes or biodiversity and it has a high extractable sugar content. Because of these combined properties, it offers greater potential as a feedstock for bioethanol production than many other energy crops.
"If a new profitable outlet is found for grass then farmers have the ability to grow more to meet that demand and technically the same land could be used for animal grazing, silage production and fuel production."
Ieuan Wyn Jones, Wales Minister for the Economy and Transport, said the research project had the potential to provide a highly innovative and cost effective green transport fuel. "If successful Grassohol has the potential to stimulate the rural economy and provide farmers with a viable form of diversification - it could result in new green jobs and will lay the foundation for developing ancillary technologies geared to bio-ethanol production and bio-refining."
In Wales 1.04 million hectares - 62% of the available land - is permanent grassland providing a readily available resource that can be harvested over a long season. The research will contribute to the creation of a centre of excellence in agri-biorefinery in Wales which will also investigate producing chemicals from plants which have previously been produced by the petrochemical industry.