Feature Story | 9-May-2024

Aston University researchers to help unlock renewable energy and reduce rice straw emissions in India and the Philippines

Aston University

  • 300 million tonnes of rice straw are burned after harvest in Asia every year
  • Aston University will be contributing to new international project to unlock renewable energy potential
  • Its researchers will lead on calculating the greenhouse gas emissions savings of new systems.

Aston University researchers are helping to make rice straw processing in India and the Philippines less environmentally damaging. 

The University will be contributing to a new international collaboration, the Renewable, Inclusive Carbon-negative Energy (RICE) project, funded by Innovate UK Energy Catalyst programme to unlock renewable energy for rice farmers.  

Already the University has worked with UK company Straw Innovations in the Philippines and now the two are expanding their collaboration to benefit more of the continent.

Rice straw is a crop waste byproduct and each year across Asia 300 million tonnes of it go up in smoke when burnt after harvest. This releases emissions and air pollutants that triple risks of increased respiratory diseases and accelerate climate change. 

India and the Philippines are the world’s second and eighth largest rice producers respectively and together they produce 130 million tonnes of both rice and straw per year.

Aston University and Straw Innovations and will be collaborating with an Indian award winning small and medium sized enterprise, Takachar. The firm has developed small scale, low-cost, portable equipment which can convert agricultural waste on-site into higher value bioproducts such as fertilizer blends, chemicals and biofuels. 

"The company will develop a super-sized version which is 10 times bigger than their current device, make it adaptable to rice mills, and will send it to Straw Innovations, so the two firms can test out different business models for farmer adoption/benefit. Straw Innovations will also send their machines from the Philippines to India mid-project and the two countries will test out different business models for farmer adoption/benefit. And for the first time they will tap into the heat produced in the waste process to dry rice, instead of using diesel or kerosene.

University researchers will lead on assessing the sustainability of the project, calculating the greenhouse gas emissions savings of the new systems introduced by Straw Innovations and Takachar. Sustainability expert Dr Mirjam Röder will also engage with the farming community and rural stakeholders to quantify how the systems can increase farmer incomes, equality of opportunity, food security and decarbonisation benefits, whilst highlighting any trade-offs.

Dr Röder who is based at Aston University’s Energy & Bioproducts Research Institute (EBRI) said: “Environmentally, rice produces 48% of all global crop emissions, due to methane from flooded fields. This is halved when the straw is removed and reduced further when its carbon is stored in biochar. We are aiming for carbon negative which means removing carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere or sequestering more CO₂ than is emitted. 

“Our new research leads on from our rice straw bio gas hub project with Straw Innovations, SEARCA and Koolmill and we’re pleased to be building further relationships with new partners in India.

In January Biomass and Bioenergy published a paper about the topic written by Dr Röder, the director of EBRI Professor Patricia Thornley and Craig Jamieson of Straw Innovations called The greenhouse gas performance and climate change mitigation potential from rice straw biogas as a pathway to the UN sustainable development goals.

Craig Jamieson from Straw Innovations said "We’ve been pioneering rice straw work with the team at Aston University for the past seven years. We're delighted to continue that strong partnership and widen it to include Takachar in this new project. 

“Takachar is a leader in making biochar from crop residues and our partnership with them is very strategic. We look forward to combining our new improved straw harvesting technology with their scaled-up biochar production. It will be a step change, creating a new, more efficient system for carbon negative energy and soil improvement for rural communities across Asia."

Vidyut Mohan who founded Takachar said: “We are excited to partner with Aston University and Straw Innovations. 

“Our combined solutions can significantly move the needle in reducing crop residue collection costs and biochar production costs for carbon removal."

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