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Agricultural research institute focuses on renewable energy

28/04/2009

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A new UK centre of excellence for environmental and energy research could increase renewable energy in agricultural, while also investigating use of alternative bioenergy sources.

The Renewable Energy Centre (REC) is part of the Agri Food and Bioscience Institute (AFBI) in County Down, Northern Ireland. It will provide an agricultural setting to address practical problems regarding the production of biomass crops, use of alternative bioenergy and sustainable treatment of farm waste. The objective is to assist the agri-food industry in maximising the potential of renewable energy and support technology transfer.

AFBI boasts a rich history of agricultural research and development, and has been the location for studies into crop and animal production since 1927. The centre is the site of the former Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland and offers 200 ha for both resources and research.

In 2006, the AFBI was created when the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Science Service merged with the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland. The construction of the Renewable Energy Centre began in 2007 and was completed in March 2009.

A key focus of the research carried out at REC is the production and use of biomass. A variety of materials are produced on-site, using rotation coppice willow, forest brash, and clear-felled wood and by-products.

“Significant work has been undertaken to look at elephant grass (Miscanthus) as an alternative bioenergy source,” says Greg Forbes, one of the centre’s coordinators. As this plant grows across Ireland, any research that leads to its use as a biosource would be significant. In addition, work is underway to optimise the use of wood and wood-chip bioenergy in agricultural settings.

Bioremediation of farm waste is another focus for the centre. “Through the use of the facility’s on-site anaerobic digester, we hope to show how silage, bedding and waste animal feed can be used to create bioenergy materials or for direct combustion,” he says.

Significant studies are being carried out on the use of a variety of industrial crops, particularly hemp, which has a real potential as a sustainable material for use in numerous industries, such as the production of car parts and interiors, and in sustainable building. “The centre has also undertaken a project on the use of grass as a bioenergy source, and the exploitation of its by-products in the chemical industry,” adds Forbes.

The Institute is self-sufficient in terms of heating, thanks to a biomass system that uses locally produced wood-chip and forestry-waste products. In addition, REC will soon be able to cover its entire energy needs thanks to a biogas system, which will feed excess power back into the local grid.

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