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From food waste to fuel in 6 days

4 October 2011

Last week a new Biorefinery Centre, funded in part by BBSRC, was opened at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) in Norwich by George Freeman MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture. The Centre will explore new ways to make use of residual plant material from food processing and agriculture in applications such as biofuels, high value chemicals, and fibres.

Commenting on the Centre, George Freeman MP said "I am thrilled and excited by the developments at the Institute of Food Research and congratulate them on their new addition of a Biorefinery Centre."

George Freeman MP opening the Biorefinery Centre. Copyright: IFR

George Freeman MP opening the Biorefinery Centre. Copyright: IFR

"I have long been a supporter of our scientific potential in the East and this is another example of Norfolk's world class potential."

The Centre, which is led by Professor Keith Waldron, employs a steam explosion pilot plant, which is being used to break down the structure of plant cell walls in, for example, wheat straw. Once processed in this way, the plant material provides useful natural products, including those that can be fermented to produce bioethanol for use as a transport fuel.

With millions of tonnes of residual plant material generated during food processing and by agriculture, Professor Waldron saw an opportunity to find new uses for it that would not compete with food production.

"Once the food part of a crop has been exploited, there is a mass of plant material left behind that is often discarded as waste," said Professor Keith Waldron.

In the following video, Professor Waldron introduces the Centre.

  Biorefinery Centre at IFR

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Video transcript - Video and audio help - Watch video on YouTube

"With the launch of the pilot plant and through collaborations on the Norwich Research Park we have all the expertise necessary to help industry explore ways to make use of it," he said.

"The holy grail for biomass exploitation is to break down the structure of [waste portions of] wheat and other currently grown crops," said Richard Parker from Renewables East, one of the project's funders.

"The advanced technologies from the Biorefinery Centre could provide valuable IP that could be used not just in the UK but globally, giving a return to UK plc."

Working with industry

The team at IFR are working with Lotus Engineering and other partners to address the challenge of producing fuel with a lower carbon footprint. The biofuel could also combine a performance advantage.

IFR Director Prof. David Boxer and George Freeman MP hear about the Steam Explosion Unit from Prof. Keith Waldron. Copyright: IFR

IFR Director Prof. David Boxer and George Freeman MP hear about the Steam Explosion Unit from Prof. Keith Waldron. Copyright: IFR

The bio-alcohol generated will be tested by Lotus in their bi-fuel and tri-fuel engines. Engineers will experiment with optimizing combustion and efficiency.

"Just about any type of alcohol can be used to fuel a car and if it is optimised can even give a performance advantage," said Dr Richard Pearson, senior technical specialist at Lotus Engineering.

"For example, we see significant improvements in torque at low and high speed."

An added benefit of using bio-alcohol is that existing engines can be easily adapted to run on it and existing distribution methods can be used.

"Bio-alcohol is still a liquid fuel and it does not require a quantum change in vehicle technology or in fuel distribution infrastructure," said Dr Pearson.

Work with a variety of industry partners will also enable testing of the commercial viability of materials produced for different sectors.


As well as wheat straw, there are a number of other possible sustainable sources of feedstocks. For example, East Anglian brewer Adnams, a partner in the research, generates about 2400 tonnes of brewer spent grain a year. Other waste will include unused oilseed rape straw, hemp and waste cereal grain from milling.

At the same time as this work on processing straw and other waste products, scientists at the John Innes Centre are researching ways to breed crop varieties that combine optimum traits in a plant stem for biomass exploitation as well as optimum traits for food.


A key component in the fermentation process is yeast - a micro-organism that breaks down the sugars released by the steam explosion process and converts it into alcohol. So the Centre will also house a yeast screening facility and yeast propagator to generate sufficient bulk yeast for processing.

Specialist yeast strains from IFR's National Collection of Yeast Cultures will be used in the fermentation used to create the bio-alcohol.

Access to the Biorefinery Centre

The steam explosion pilot plant is located within the purpose-built Biorefinery Centre and will modify biomass using a thermal / hydrolysis process which operates at up to 230°C. This weakens, pre-degrades and ruptures the cell walls of the plant material. Enquiries from researchers, SMEs and larger companies can be directed to Dr Kerry I'Anson, IFR Extra: 01603 255342,


Funding for the Biorefinery Centre has come from BBSRC and EEDA. Recent and on-going research is being funded by BBSRC, Defra, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), AHDB-HGCA, the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) and Renewables East. Collaborating Industrial partners include Lotus, Vireol, Adnams, and Biocatalysts Ltd. Collaborating academic partners include the University of East Anglia, the John Innes Centre and Brunel University.


About IFR

The mission of the Institute of Food Research,, is to undertake international quality scientific research relevant to food and human health and to work in partnership with others to provide underpinning science for consumers, policy makers, the food industry and academia. It is a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status.

IFR is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. IFR received a total of £13.4M investment from BBSRC in 2010-11.

The institutes deliver innovative, world class bioscience research and training, leading to wealth and job creation, generating high returns for the UK economy. They have strong links with business, industry and the wider community, and support policy development.

The institutes' research underpins key sectors of the UK economy such as agriculture, bioenergy, biotechnology, food and drink and pharmaceuticals. In addition, the institutes maintain unique research facilities of national importance.

About Lotus Engineering

Lotus Engineering is an industry leader in sustainable future fuels. It is world-renowned for its research and development into "efficient performance", which includes pioneering new internal combustion engine concepts for sustainable transport solutions and high power density, low CO2 engines. Lotus has demonstrated that alcohol fuels, including ethanol, can provide performance and efficiency advantages over conventional gasoline / petrol in optimised internal combustion engines.

About the John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre,, is a world-leading research centre based on the Norwich Research Park The JIC's mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, and to apply its knowledge to benefit agriculture, human health and well-being, and the environment. JIC delivers world class bioscience outcomes leading to wealth and job creation, and generating high returns for the UK economy. JIC is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and received a total of £28.4M investment in 2010-11.

About HGCA (Home Grown Cereals Authority)

HGCA aims to create a world-class arable industry in which all are able to profit from a sustainable sector. The organisation helps the arable industry to understand the costs and benefits of new technologies such as biotechnology. One of the current research projects to address this is HOOCH, funded by Defra and HGCA, to develop and eventually commercialise a unique process for converting lignocellulose into bioalcohols for the automotive and related industries.

About Renewables East

Renewables East acts as the renewable energy agency for the East of England, bridging the gap between the public and private sectors. It helped create the British Bioalcohols Group, established to exploit biomass from agriculture and the food chain. BBAG aims to maximise bioalcohol production while minimising competition with the food industry. Initiatives have covered biomass for heat and power, 'renewable energy' from waste, anaerobic digestion, gasification and transport biofuels.

About Vireol

Vireol will be the operator of a major wheat-to-ethanol facility in the North of England, which will produce 200m litres of sustainable UK ethanol each year. This facility will provide "good renewable transport fuels" delivering carbon savings in excess of 60 per cent when compared to use of oil in transport fuels. Through the process of bio-refining, we will also provide 175,000 tonnes of high protein animal feed for use in the UK animal feed trade. It is anticipated that this will reduce the amount of soy meal the UK will need to import annually.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: .

External contact

Zoe Dunford, IFR Press Office

tel: 01603 255111
mob: 07768 164185

Andrew Chapple, IFR Press Office

tel: 01603 251490

Alastair Florance, Lotus Press Office

tel: 01953 608462


BBSRC Media Office

tel: 01793 414694