Innovating to solve the net zero puzzle

The Supergen Bioenergy Hub recently collaborated with the Carbon Recycling Network, the Biomass Biorefinery Network, and the High Value Biorenewables Network (three of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB)) to submit a joint response to a Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Call for Evidence on The Role of Biomass in Achieving Net Zero.

The responses to the Call for Evidence will inform the development of the new UK biomass strategy, which is due to be published in 2022. This is the third in our ‘Biomass for net zero?’ blog series exploring some of the key points from our evidence submission. As we get closer to COP26, the series will also highlight some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to realise the potential of biomass systems to support the transition to net zero.

Authored by Katie Chong, Supergen Bioenergy Hub

Innovation and people lie at the very core of achieving net zero, and there are still many challenges to overcome. A huge amount of research and innovation is still needed, even though we are on a very short timeline to try and fix our climate problems. There is no single solution for global decarbonisation due to the huge variety of potential feedstocks and technologies and the unique requirements of different communities. It is clear that the way forward will involve a combination of innovative technologies to achieve the greatest carbon savings. Climate change is a giant puzzle that we can only solve by putting all the solution pieces together, decarbonising piece by piece.

The utilisation of biomass feedstocks for energy (bioenergy) or products will be a piece of this puzzle, but even within this area, the way forward will involve a combination of different, innovative technologies. Fantastic work has already been done; for example, we now have a much better understanding of key biomass conversion technologies such as those based on thermochemical (pyrolysis, gasification) and biological (anaerobic digestion, fermentation). However, as we move towards a net zero world, research innovation is needed to improve existing technologies and create new ones. We need biomass technologies with improved performance that are more cost- and energy-efficient and more flexible in terms of feedstocks. Making biomass utilisation economic will, in many cases, require a biorefinery approach (where multiple products are created from one feedstock to extract maximum value) and delivering such systems requires novel and innovative approaches. We need to improve the way different biomass technologies work together and couple this with carbon capture, storage and utilisation to deliver even more effective GHG removal. To achieve net zero will not be possible without carbon capture, so the development and integration of bioenergy processes is essential.

However, successful innovation is needed to address these challenges; such technologies will only impact our net-zero transition if they go beyond lab-scale experiments and are used and deployed at scale. Such upscaling is necessary across the whole biomass supply chain, from feedstock supply to the technologies for treating and utilising biomass. But the transition to the large scale needed for deployment isn’t always simple. For example, there may be good knowledge of a technology’s performance under laboratory conditions and with ideal feedstocks. Yet, understanding how this varies with real feedstocks, larger volumes, and integration with other technologies is often poor. When technologies are scaled up, this can lead to significant performance issues and commercial failure. The UK would greatly benefit from more open access scale-up facilities to help speed up and de-risk the move to demonstration scale. Alongside this, it is vital that policy relating to biomass feedstocks and their role in achieving net zero is consistent across government departments and sectors and that there is policy certainty in the medium to long term. Scale-up and deployment of biomass technologies requires investment, and changing policy and support often deters investors.

Innovation is required through continued multidisciplinary research and strong engagement with industry and policy stakeholders, all of which lies at the core of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub and the BBSRC Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy. We will all continue this work and keep adding solution pieces to the huge climate change puzzle!