Rice for life: How bioenergy could help those most in need

An interview with Patricia Thornley (SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub)

For many families in the poorest parts of the world, a bowl of rice can be the difference between life and death.

In Asia, where around 90 per cent of global supplies of this staple food are produced and consumed, rice provides more than half of the daily calorie intake for millions of people.

Our research is now looking at whether, in these rice-dependent areas, this humble grain might also provide a source for a clean and reliable energy supply.

Paddy fields are tilled and irrigated, seeds are sown, plants grow, the fields are drained, the crop harvested and threshed, the land is cleared, tilled and irrigated, and it all starts over again…

It’s an age-old cycle and one that produces a huge quantity of waste alongside the huge quantities of rice that feed millions.

In the Philippines, we’re running a study alongside an international rice research institute to understand more about how waste rice straw could be put through a process of anaerobic digestion to create gas.

Not only could this new energy source potentially replace current unreliable and intermittent domestic electricity provision, but we’re hoping it could also be used to power the rice drying process, which is currently a major drain on local energy supplies.

Repurposing the rice straw as a bioenergy source would also have considerable local environmental benefits.

Currently, much of the waste straw in the Philippines is burned as part of the paddy clearing process, just as it is in other major centres of rice production such as India and Vietnam.

Burning the straw creates serious health issues for many of the locals who have little option but to breathe in the noxious black smoke that covers large sections of these countries at certain points of the year.

Our research in the Philippines has only just begun, so we’re still some way from finding the answers, but it’s already clear that integrating supply chains offers huge potential for helping those most in need of food and fuel.

Dr Patricia Thornley is based at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester and has over 20 years experience working in bioenergy in industry and academia. She leads the EPSRC SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub, which focuses on the research challenges associated with delivering sustainable bioenergy systems, including the integration of food and fuel supply chains.

Q & A

What is your specific field of research?

Most of what I do is linked to bioenergy: that’s energy derived from materials within the biosphere, whether that’s trees, plants, seaweed, crops and so on. I spend a lot of my time assessing the lifecycles of bioenergy supply chains, how sustainable those processes are and what the carbon balance associated with each supply chain might be.

What led you to base your research here at the University of Manchester?

I’ve been studying bioenergy for over 20 years and for the last four years of those, I’ve focused primarily on food. My husband became a mature student here and so rather than spending weeks at a time apart, I decided to join him in Manchester. When I first arrived here, the University had only just started looking at bioenergy. There’s now a team of six people within the Tyndall Centre dedicated to it as well as a couple of PhD students. And that’s not counting all the others across the University who also contribute to bioenergy research - according to a study we did last year, there could be as many as 80 people working in this area.

Why is food such an important issue at this point in time?

When you look at the projections for continued growth in demand for food, it’s a huge issue, particularly in the poorest parts of the world where population growth is at its highest. Not only is there more food to go round in the wealthy wheat-consuming west, but we’ve also developed sophisticated processes for recycling and reusing the waste from the production of that food to generate bioenergy. In the poorer parts of the world, where rice is the staple diet and demand is higher, straw is predominately burned in the field, which causes additional environmental problems. There are certain times of year you just end up with masses of black smoke clouds over huge swathes of rice producing regions like the Philippines, India and Vietnam and the human health impacts of that are immense.

How does your research help meet this challenge?

A lot of my research currently focuses on the potential for bringing together the supply chains for producing food and for generating fuel. For example, in the Philippines where they burn their rice straw before planting the next crop, we’re looking at whether they could instead use anaerobic digestion to produce gas. If successful, that could dramatically reduce their reliance on kerosene as well as providing many homes short of electricity with a reliable supply of clean energy. We’re also doing work back here in the UK, looking at whether there is the appetite for farmers to use land previously used for food production as a source of fuel instead. Our research included visiting sites in Northern Ireland, including one pig farm where the farmer had built an anaerobic digester that used waste from the abattoir to generate clean energy. Interestingly, even though he realised how important bioenergy like this could be, he told me that there was no way that he would use his land to grow fuel because land should only be used for growing food!

How important is collaboration?

It’s an essential part of what we do. What drives me is the application of science and for that you need to be willing and able to work with others. On our biggest project, we work with about 30 different industrial and academic partners around the UK. We also work on a number of projects with partners from across Europe and as far afield as the Philippines.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

When you look along the food production chain you can see such so much waste and so much potential for doing things differently and integrating food and fuel systems. In the UK, for example, we produce fantastic feed wheat but our quality bread wheat is not great so we actually import most of that from Canada and elsewhere. If our straw to grain ratio was to change so that we were growing wheat to meet fuel as well as food needs, it might be that we were forced to grow a different variety of bread wheat and reduce our dependence on imports.

And what are you most concerned about?

It’s hard to see anything other than the situation worsening for those people already struggling in the poorest parts of the world. That’s where the greatest population growth is expected to be and these are also the areas most likely to be worst hit by the effects of climate change and with the least access to the technologies that could allow them to adapt to that. It’s a looming disaster. That’s why we’re going out to South Africa in September to try and link up UK researchers with their Southern African counterparts to work on integrating the food/fuel landscape. But while there are clearly real opportunities to do things differently, to create real change you need the agreement and co-operation of national governments and international organisations and you worry that this may never happen.

By Bill Bows in interview with Patricia Thornley