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Researchers at the Centre For Water Soluble Polymers add value to Biorefinery Project

05 April 2011

A Welsh university is hoping to find novel commercial uses for the by-products of a new greener fuel made from grass.

Experts from Glyndŵr University will investigate how sugars from new forms of ryegrass can be chemically modified to produce additives which could be used as a thickening or gelling agent in a range of products in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

They will work with scientists from Aberystwyth University and Bangor University in a pan-Wales research project which has been awarded more than £450,000 in funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s Integrated Bio-refining Research and Technology Club (IBTI).

Glyndŵr University will focus its research on fructans in new strains of ryegrass, grown on land unsuitable for arable farming, which have been developed by plant biologists at Aberystwyth to produce biofuel.

Traditional ryegrasses store their carbohydrates as starch, a very stable molecule that is difficult to modify.

In the new ryegrasses, however, these are stored as fructans, long chains of fruit sugar molecules which can be easily modified using chemicals - without impacting upon the suitability of the grass for producing biofuel.

The aim of the project is to develop an economically viable biofuel which decreases the dependency on crude oil without impacting on global food supplies.

A third Welsh university, Bangor University, will look at ways to increase the yield of the fructans and minimise waste products by using its expertise in sonication, a scientific process which uses soundwaves to agitate particles.

The project is being led by Professor Peter Williams, Director of the Centre for Water-Soluble Polymers at Glyndŵr University.

Professor Williams said: “The isolation and modification of fructans for use in industry will make these crops much more cost effective for farmers and so will encourage their growth.

“The work brings together world leading research from within Wales in the areas of plant biology, biochemistry, chemistry and surface and colloid science. It is an excellent example of three Welsh universities pooling together multidisciplinary expertise on a project which has the potential to bring huge benefits to both industry and to the general public.”

Dr Celia Caulcott, Director of Innovation and Skills, BBSRC said: “There is a pressing need to find alternatives to oil based fuels and with global reserves declining sustainable biofuels are one of very few practical alternatives. There are some significant challenges in the use of leaves or stalks to make such fuels, not least the economic viability of any processing plant established to do so. Research such as this will ensure that as soon as the science underpinning biofuel production reaches the stage of commercialisation researchers will be in a good position to make it an economic success.”

Anna Davies, Technology Translator for the Centre for Water-Soluble Polymers, said: “Food versus fuel is a sensitive topic and with the increasing changing land use from arable to biofuel farming it is crucial that we develop alternative solutions which will not contribute to the global food crisis. The research will contribute towards this - the ryegrass offers an exciting alternative to first generation biofuels such as wheat and sugar beet.”

Dr Adam Charlton, from the Welsh Institute for Natural Resources, Bangor University, said: “The award of this prestigious grant to three Welsh Universities will allow us to consolidate existing links between the institutions in the area of bio-refining and bio-based materials and will showcase Welsh scientific expertise to both industry and the wider UK academic community.”

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