Taking the step into the unknown

The £6M SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub has just relocated to a new research centre at Aston University, so in this issue, we speak to Professor Patricia Thornley, principal investigator of the hub and newly appointed Director of Aston University’s European Bioenergy Research Institute.

Patricia is uniquely placed to take the lead in these projects, as a chartered physicist with over 25 years’ experience of bioenergy and a career that has spanned both industry and academia. She led the hub from its launch in 2012 until 2017; and leads it once again, as it moves to a new home in Birmingham.

During her career, Patricia has been involved in many of the UK’s early bioenergy plants, addressing the complex engineering implementation of these projects, and before taking up her new appointments, held the Chair of Sustainable Energy Systems at The University of Manchester.

Speaking of her work leading the Hub, Patricia comments, “The Hub brings together a network of universities, academics, industry partners, policymakers and stakeholders across the UK.

“Together, we are focusing our efforts on increasing the contribution of bioenergy to meet the UK’s environmental targets and energy needs; whilst addressing the challenges posed by these goals.”

“As a society, we have a much greater awareness of the environmental impact of our actions – but if you want to make a difference you have to make something – it is insufficient to be aware of it – you need engineering, chemical engineering.

“We are at the forefront of research in this area – but we are not working in a silo – what we are doing is translational, we work to deliver sustainable bioenergy systems, in a coherent and cost-effective way.

The Hub is jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The value of the Hub’s work is that it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to develop bioenergy systems, delivering a diverse range of projects.

Work is well underway, with a portfolio of over 40 projects completed in the first phase of the Hub, 6 new work packages under way and opportunities for the wider UK bioenergy research base to develop new ideas with the project’s £1.3m flexible funding initiative.

“There is a huge amount of knowledge, capability and understanding within the partners of the project, which is helping to expand the limits of energy production and demonstrate the viability of these systems,” explains Patricia.

“People fear that the economic cost of serious carbon reduction is higher than using fossil fuels. We need to bolster the economic argument for using renewable energy by scaling up the technology, improving the economic replication of it and demonstrating it in small-scale facilities.”

SUPERGEN projects encompass fundamental science and address the engineering challenges presented by bioenergy systems, whilst also looking at the broader social and economic impact of them too. The Hub’s core programme of work examines:

  • Biomass resources – led by the University of Aberystwyth,
  • Pre-treatment and conversion – co-led by Imperial College, Aston and The University of Manchester
  • Vectors – led by the University of Bath
  • Systems – led by University of Manchester

“At the moment, Bioenergy makes up just 7% of our energy in the UK and it needs to be much, much more. Heat and transport, account for a huge amount of our energy usage – so we are focusing our decarbonisation efforts on these areas.

“In order to meet our Paris commitments of effectively no carbon emissions by 2050, there is much work that needs to be done. Bioenergy has a unique role to play in meeting this commitment.

“That’s why it is so important that Industry, policymakers and academics work together to address these challenges; and why many of our projects take a whole-systems perspective to comprehensively evaluate the potential of emerging technologies.

“We need to be sure that these projects will make a difference, that they meet the standards of the industry, producing energy that is fit for the end user, whilst providing real benefits for the environment and achieving all of this is a way that is practicable and economically viable.”

Complementing her work leading the Bioenergy Hub, Patricia has also been appointed Director of Aston University’s European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI), where she will build on the pioneering work of Professor Tony Bridgwater, delivering bioenergy and energy systems research.

Aston is a world-leader in energy research and the European-funded institute is developing this work, collaborating and often leading, on many different European projects. However, the EBRI team also works on bridging the gap between the commercial and academic sectors, showing industrialists and SMEs in the Midlands, the opportunities afforded by the bioenergy sector.

Moving forward, Patricia will broaden the institute’s research focus, making it more outward looking, going beyond the technical aspects of their work to embrace wider sustainability issues. All the while, engaging with a broader range of policymakers, stakeholders and industry partners to communicate their research findings.

“It’s important that we see beyond the thing that we are most comfortable with and step outside of our comfort zone if we are to achieve our goal of providing a practical renewable energy foundation.”

Seeing more women take up STEM subjects is another aspiration of Patricia’s, recently she chaired an EPSRC panel which chose eleven projects at UK universities aimed at improving equality, diversity and inclusion within engineering and the physical sciences.

In addition, Patricia wants to see the knowledge we’ve gained in Europe be translatable to developing countries. “We need to look at global climate change holistically, and take into account international development issues, helping to improve agricultural practices, energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases.

“Providing alternative fuels for people who don’t have secure or easy access to energy sources is a priority – delivering systems that are robust, straightforward and scalable – technology that can be used locally.”

Patricia, it is clear, is committed to using the scientific knowledge that underpins her work to make a difference in the real world.