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Methane from waste 'could power homes'

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 12, 2012

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Westcountry academics are at the forefront of an initiative which is hoped will boost the economy by converting waste into power.

Experts at the University of Exeter have been awarded £4 million in funding for ground-breaking research into creating biomethane, which can be burned to produce energy to power homes and businesses.

Farmers have described the technology as a "virtuous circle" and say they want to see 1,000 small-scale projects up and running by the end of the decade.

Dr Orkun Soyer, an expert in systems biology, is leading the research into anaerobic digestion, in which waste is broken down by microbes in the absence of oxygen to release methane.

He said the study could solve the two problems: how to dispose of increasing amounts of food and animal waste, and how to generate sufficient energy for society's needs.

"Anaerobic digestion units contain thousands of different types of microbial species working as a community," he explained.

"At the moment we know very little about which of these microbes is crucial to the process and how we could manipulate them to promote communities of bacteria to work more efficiently.

"If we can do that, AD could become a viable energy solution, and the UK could be at the forefront of that revolution."

Dr Soyer has assembled a team of scientists from Exeter as well as Newcastle University, Imperial College London and The Genome Analysis Centre.

They plan to scrutinise the natural process, examining the microbial communities sampled from both bioreactors and nature, and ultimately arriving at the most efficient.

The by-product of anaerobic digestion can be used as fertiliser, meaning the research could have a large impact on agriculture.

Ian Johnson, South West spokesman for the National Farmers Union, said the research was "vital if we are to meet the challenges of producing more with less impact with increasing climate volatility".

But he said such biodigester schemes were currently on a large scale and they probably only number in double figures at the moment.

He added: "We would like to see 1,000 up and running across the country by 2020, which means schemes need to be small enough to be economically viable for farmers to take up."

The funding from the Biotechnical and Biological Sciences Research Council has been awarded to synthetic biology projects which could help to promote economic growth.

The study is one of six large projects across the country to receive a share of a £20 million pot announced by Chancellor George Osborne last week.

At the moment the AD industry is relatively small in the UK, while thousands of large-scale and rural plants exist in countries like Germany, China and India.

One of the main hurdles facing the technology is that little is known about how and why the microorganisms work to break down the material, such as food waste and dung.

Dr Soyer added: One major issue for existing facilities is robustness.

"At the moment, these microbial communities can suddenly stop functioning, resulting in no methane being produced.

"If we could understand what makes communities robust and engineer a solution, it could be the key to a more sustainable future."

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