Exploiting sustainable sources of chemicals and energy

18 Dec 2013 10:59:38.123
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The University of Nottingham has received funding of nearly £1.5m to lead a UK-wide network that will promote working with industry on developing sustainable sources of chemicals and energy which will safeguard the environment.

The funding is part of an £18m grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to establish 13 unique industry-academia networks in industrial biotechnology and bioenergy. The ‘Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy’ (BBSRC NIBB) is aimed at boosting interaction between the academic research base and industry to promote the translation of research into benefits for the UK.

Professor Nigel Minton, in the School of Life Sciences, said: “Current energy and chemical needs are met by the extraction and processing of fossil fuels, in the form of coal, petroleum and natural gas. Such resources are finite, are frequently found in politically unstable regions of the world, and their utilisation is having severe impacts on the climate, both through pollution and increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is imperative that new biological processes are developed based on the use of microorganisms to convert sustainable carbon sources into the necessary chemicals and fuels.”

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Professor Minton, a leading UK expert in industrial biotechnology, and his co-investigator Professor David Fell from Oxford Brookes University, will lead a network that will look at using bacteria to convert the simple gases that are all around us into more complex useful chemicals and fuels.  

The challenges ahead

Professor Minton said: “Developing economic processes that efficiently convert plant material into the necessary sugar feedstock is proving challenging. In our network, we will take an alternative, ground breaking approach in which we will not use sugars as the microbial feedstock, but simple gases such as carbon monoxide (C0) and carbon dioxide (C02). Such gases may be derived from non-food sources such as waste gases from industry (e.g., steel manufacturing, oil refining, coal and natural/shale gas) as well as synthesis gas (CO & H2) produced from sustainable resources, such as biomass and domestic/ agricultural wastes. This enables low carbon fuels and chemicals to be produced in any industrialised geography without consumption of valuable food or land resources.”

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: “To get ahead in the global race we need to turn our world-beating science and research into world-beating products and services, as set out in our Industrial Strategy. These networks will unlock the huge potential of biotechnology and bioenergy, such as finding innovative ways to use leftover food, and creating chemicals from plant cells.”

The networks will drive new ideas to harness the potential of biological resources for producing and processing materials, biopharmaceuticals, chemicals and energy. Each has a particular focus, such as: realising the potential of food waste and by-products to produce chemicals and biomaterials; unlocking the industrial biotechnology potential of microalgae; producing high value chemicals from plants; and making use of plant cell walls (lignocellulosic biomass) to produce chemicals and biofuels.

Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC Executive Director, Innovation and Skills, said: “These networks bring together a number of internationally competitive, cross-disciplinary communities capable of undertaking innovative research that will attract further investment from the UK and abroad. 

“They provide a new opportunity for the research community to make significant contributions to the UK’s bioeconomy: driving transformational bioscience into industrial processes and products; creating wealth and jobs; and delivering environmental benefits, such as CO2 reduction.”

The next phase

Each network includes funds to support a range of small proof of concept research projects, to demonstrate potential benefits for end user industries.  The networks will then work with industries to investigate these research challenges further. Many of these ideas and collaborative links will build into the next phase: the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst, funded by BBSRC, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the EPSRC, to be launched in early 2014 to support the development of ideas from concept to commercialisation.

The catalyst has benefited from recent cash injections and will now offer £45M funding to support major integrated research projects involving collaborations between academic and business communities that will offer clear commercial potential.

These new schemes form the central part of BBSRC's strategy to support the development of Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (IBBE) as a key component of the UK bioeconomy and will help to provide sustainable processes for producing bio-based alternatives products which currently rely on petrochemicals.  

Industrial biotechnology is the use of biological resources for producing and processing materials, chemicals and energy.  The resources include plants, algae, marine life, fungi and micro-organisms. 

The feedstocks include renewable materials such as crop wastes, animal wastes, food and municipal wastes and perennial biomass.  

BBSRC has included the production of anti-microbial compounds and biopharmaceuticals in IBBE too.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottinghamhas 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also the most popular university among graduate employers, the world’s greenest university, and winner of the Times Higher Education Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development’. It is ranked in the World's Top 75 universities by the QS World University Rankings.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Nigel Minton on +44 (0)115 846 7458, nigel.minton@nottingham.ac.uk; or Rob Dawson, Head of News BBSRC, on +44 (0)1793 413 204
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: lindsay.brooke@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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