Supergen Bioenergy Hub at formal launch of rice straw biogas facility in the Philippines

Supergen Bioenergy Hub researchers, Professor Patricia Thornley and Dr Mirjam Roeder, have travelled to the Philippines for the formal launch of an anaerobic digestion pilot facility that converts rice straw to biogas.

The Rice Straw to Biogas (R2B) project – a joint initiative between Straw Innovations Ltd, Supergen Bioenergy Hub, QUBE Renewables and the University of Southampton, with funding under the Energy Catalyst programme from Innovate UK and UK Aid – aims to transform rice straw from what is currently waste into a resource of clean fuel and rural prosperity.

For every kilogram of rice grains, between 0.7-1.4kg of straw is produced. Rice is the world’s number one food crop, but its straw is a major disposal problem across Asia, where around 300 million tonnes of it are burned in paddy fields each year, with negative impacts on the environment and human health. In Laguna, Philippines, where the biogas pilot facility is set up, uses of rice straw are limited, and incorporating it with the soil presents practical and environmental challenges. Research shows that the straw can be gathered and processed to produce biogas for different uses, in both domestic and commercial settings.

The R2B project is developing an integrated process that will use the abundant rice straw resource to transform energy access and enable rural development. This process produces biogas for energy and fertiliser from rice straw through anaerobic digestion. It showcases the pathways of collecting rice straw and feeding it into two dry anaerobic digester reactors with biomethane upgrading equipment, so it can deliver a biogas and biomethane. The activities of the pilot facility and the development of the associated business models are supported by academic lab work and analysis from the UK research partners. The newly developed prototype is already bringing benefits to local rice farmers, creating jobs, building capacity and enhancing environmental benefits as it provides a viable alternative to burning rice straw.

Research within the Supergen Bioenergy Hub has focused on sustainability analyses, including analysing the project’s socioeconomic impacts on the local community, and environmental assessments, such as of greenhouse gas emissions, to maximise sustainability benefits. Dr Roeder has travelled to the site of the pilot plant in Laguna province to interview local farmers, entrepreneurs, agricultural authorities, policy makers and other stakeholders to assess the viability of different business models. The feedback from this will inform plans to scale up activities, while ensuring that the voice of local people is at the forefront of developments and that energy access is supported.

Dr Mirjam Roeder notes: “By applying an integrative and participatory approach and giving stakeholders an active role and voice in the development of the business models, we have ensured high levels of interest and engagement in the local communities, from farmers to commercial and policy stakeholders. It also shows that regulation alone, for example on burning rice straw, won’t solve the problem; it requires the provision of practical solutions and a demonstration of the direct and wider benefits for individuals and communities.”

Professor Thornley comments: “The interdisciplinary approach we have is unique and essential. Looking not only at the technology, but also at local energy and livelihood demands, we can maximise the probability of creating sustainable bioenergy in different communities across the world.

“If we are to deliver significant greenhouse gas reductions, the breakthrough comes from looking at the biggest global uses and improving them in a way that people will actually deploy, because it delivers what they need as well as meeting global sustainability objectives.”

At the formal launch event on Wednesday 26 June, dignitaries, local farmers and members of the public will be shown round the project site in barangay San Francisco, Laguna province. The event will be an opportunity to share findings from the project, see the system working and present plans for scaling out.

After village scale demonstration, the commercial partners plan to scale up to a first fully commercial plant. Ultimately, the vision is to make this innovation available to rice communities across the Philippines and Asia.