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First-of-its-kind rice straw to biogas facility launched in the Philippines

A first of its kind rice straw biogas facility has formally opened in the Philippines with the help of researchers from the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) based at Aston University in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. in Birmingham, the United Kingdom (UK). The Rice Straw to Biogas (R2B) project aims to transform rice straw from what is currently waste into a resource of clean fuel and rural prosperity.

Rice crop trials in the Philippines (photo courtesy Supergen Hub).

Rice is the staple food crop in Asia, where 91 percent of it is grown and consumed. For every 4 tonnes of rice grain, 6 tonnes of straw is produced, which in Asia amounts to about 550 million tonnes of straw and 110 million tonnes of husks each year. The husks go to the mills with the rice grains, where they are separated and are often used for energy purposes, but rice straw has become a significant waste problem often burnt in the paddy fields across the continent, something the Rice Straw to Biogas (R2B) project aims to address (photo courtesy Supergen Hub).

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. For every kilogram of rice grains, between 0.7-1.4kg of straw is produced.

Under 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 – a first of its kind rice straw biogas facility in the Philippines aims to transform rice straw from what is currently waste into a resource of clean fuel and rural prosperity.

Philippine AD pilot launched

In Laguna, the 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 (AD). 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 biogas and biomethane.

An anaerobic digester (AD) for rice straw in the Philippines (photo courtesy Aston University).

An anaerobic digester (AD) for rice straw in the Philippines (photo courtesy Aston University).

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.

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, said Professor Patricia Thornley, Supergen Bioenergy Hub, Aston University who was present at the opening.

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 (GHG) emissions, to maximise sustainability benefits.

Dr Mirjam Roeder Supergen Bioenergy Hub, Aston University also travelled to the site of the pilot plant in Laguna province to interview local farmers, entrepreneurs, agricultural authorities, policymakers, 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.

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, said Dr Mirjam Roeder.

At the formal launch event which took place on June 26, 2019, dignitaries, local farmers and members of the public were shown around the project site in Barangay San Francisco, Laguna province. The event was also an opportunity to share findings from the project, see the system working and present plans for scaling out.

After the 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.

About Aston University & Supergen Hub

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and the region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham, the second largest city in the United Kingdom (UK).

Research within the Supergen Bioenergy Hub looks at the whole bioenergy chain, examining the characteristics and potential of different biomass and feedstocks, developing pre-treatment and conversion processes and identifying the best ways to deliver bioenergy. It also takes a holistic view of energy systems, assessing the role and impact of bioenergy on them and on related sectors. Research is underpinned by strong engagement with industry, policy and societal stakeholders.

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