Can grass help solve the cleaner energy crisis?



Increasing crop production for biomass is at the heart of the UK’s drive for renewable energy.

LJMU is part of a consortium funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to help the country produce more sustainable bioenergy.

The university, as part of the Project OMENZ Consortium, has won £3.35m from BEIS’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme, led by biotechnology firm Terravesta and part of a £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio for the commercialisation of clean energy technologies.

Common crops for biofuels include grasses such as - Sorghum, wheatgrass and Miscanthus – and according to the Climate Change Committee, the UK should be planting at least 30,000 hectares a year by 2035.

Crops need new growing methods

However, the agronomy of many of these ‘new’ crops is relatively unexplored meaning we are yet to fully understand the optimum ways of breeding, planting, cultivating and harvesting them.

This is where the science comes in, says Dr Richard Webster, a senior lecturer in plant environmental physiology at LJMU, who says growing plants naturally and growing them as crops is not the same thing.

“Traditional crops have been bred for a long time, and their agronomy improved in increments over time. These new crops may grow well in their native environment but if we grow them for production, we need to employ new methods.”

Dr Webster is looking specifically at Miscanthus; a grass with great potential as it thrives in relatively cold weather, has a high yield and enjoys rapid CO2 absorption.

Stimulate growth

Specifically, Dr Webster will investigate the crop’s survival rates and seek to understand how its growth can be maximised – Miscanthus commonly undergoes a growth freeze whereby its roots stop growing for periods, a process called rhizome dormancy.

“We shall use novel methods to apply growth regulating chemicals and environmental stimuli, to enhance rhizome metabolism and to reduce the heterogeneity in rhizome development and survival rates,” he explained.

“We are also applying agronomic skills to improving seed quality and germination and working with partners to develop methods for quantifying Miscanthus emergence at field scale using remote sensing.

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