A BEACON of light for the green economy
A £20m programme to boost the green economy by helping business in West Wales and the Valleys develop new technologies to turn locally grown plant crops into commercial products, has been announced by Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones AM, today at the Senedd. [Tuesday, 15 February).
Led by Aberystwyth University's Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Science (IBERS), in collaboration with its partners at Bangor and Swansea Universities, the BEACON initiative will use pioneering techniques, known as bio-refining, to assist Welsh companies in developing new low carbon technologies and new ways of making products that are traditionally made from oil.
Backed with £10.6 million from the European Regional Development Fund, BEACON aims to establish Wales as a Bio-refining Centre of Excellence and make a vital contribution to tackling climate change. It will work with companies to convert crops, such as rye grass, oats and artichokes, into products including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, fuels, cosmetics and textiles.
Mr Jones, who is also the Minister for the Economy and Transport, said: "We are committed to building upon the expertise within our Universities and industry to develop new technologies and products which will increase our competitiveness and position Wales on a global platform.
"Stimulating innovation through R&D is at the heart of Economic Renewal driving forward productivity, economic growth and increasing prosperity across the region."
BEACON will build on research already underway at IBERS to produce fuels from energy crops such as high-sugar grasses like rye.
It will also enable Swansea University to focus on developing their expertise in using bacteria and fungi to digest, or ferment, plant matter within the bio-refining process.
Bangor University will build on work to develop new materials from plants which can be used to develop innovative products, having recently discovered that compounds found in some local plants can be used to control problems like potato blight.
Vice-Chancellor of Aberystwyth University, Professor Noel Lloyd: "We are delighted to be leading this partnership project that has the potential to provide immense benefits for the whole of Wales and the world."
"By pooling the knowledge and using the joint expertise of our three universities, we can develop centres of excellence across Wales to respond to a major global challenge."
Swansea University Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard B. Davies' said: "Strong, internationally networked R&D platforms are recognised by the WAG Economic Renewal Programme as vital infrastructure elements of a modern knowledge economy.
"Beacon is a superb and timely example of how universities can mobilise their research expertise and the talent for innovation of their staff to address the current R&D deficit in Wales.
"Oil refining and oil products were once an important part of the industrial economy of the Swansea region. We are therefore particularly delighted that Swansea University will be supporting the development of a new wave of companies for which sustainable biomass replaces oil."
The benefits of bio-refining for Wales:
o Replacing some of the industrial chemicals produced from oil with similar molecules from plants that could supply potentially lucrative markets within easy reach of Welsh producers.
o Turning crops such as Rye Grass, Miscanthus, Oats and Artichokes into valuable fuels and chemicals would cut back on greenhouse gases, would increase fuel and chemical security whilst adding value to the Welsh economy.
o Chemicals derived from plants have uses in a range of sectors, including transport, food, health, hygiene and the environment
o They include new materials called bio-composites and bio-plastics
o As well as creating and safeguarding jobs in the West Wales and the Valleys, the pioneering work will help develop science in Wales.
Case study 1:
Aber Instruments is one company taking part in a research collaboration on bio-fuels with Aberystwyth University.
The company, which sells Biomass Monitors worldwide, has been able to identify new applications and new markets, including those in the pharmaceutical and brewing industries.
John Carvell at Aber Instruments said: "Our technology enables these industries to monitor live micro-organisms in the fermentation broths in the brewing process and in the production of pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics."
"As a result, our customers can better control the production of the desired end product. In an environment that is highly competitive it is critical for us as a business to capture and develop new opportunities that give us a technical lead."
Case study 2:
Bangor University has been working with Phytovation - a Caernarfon based company - to develop new technologies to produce pharmaceuticals from plant sources.
This collaboration has enabled the company to progress new products such as Senna powder for use in making high quality laxatives, based on plants that could eventually be grown in the North Wales region.
As a result, Phytovation has also achieved Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certification from the Medicines & Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which will make them more attractive as a manufacturer and increase their chances of winning new business overseas.
Andy Beggin of Phytovation said: "Our partnership with the University is highly valued and we hope that this funding will act as a springboard for companies such as ourselves to increase our business and boost the Welsh economy. We very much look forward to working with the university in the future for our mutual benefit."
Professor David Shepherd, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at Bangor University said: "Bangor has a long and successful track record of cooperative research with companies to find alternative uses for plant based materials which can be grown locally."
"We welcome the opportunity to extend this work as part of this new venture which will promote the opportunities offered to Welsh businesses by adopting and exploiting low carbon technologies. Our work with local company Phytovation is just one example of our work in this area across a broad range of industries."