The University of Surrey is collaborating with aeroponic specialists LettUs Grow to develop a greenhouse aeroponic system for willow tree propagation. The £4 million project is being funded by @Departmentbeis through their Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Program, which is a £36 million program and part of their larger £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio. It aims to sustainably meet the Government's ambitious biomass and tree planting targets in the UK's Net Zero Strategy. Biomass is plant matter used as fuel to produce heat or electricity.
The Net Zero Strategy aims to increase the proportion of biomass to 7.3% of the energy supply, outstripping nuclear power and making it the largest share of primary energy consumption from low-carbon sources. This target will be almost impossible to reach at current tree reproduction rates without importing internationally. Already around a third of the biomass used for energy was imported, 72% of which was in the form of wood pellets.
The team at the University of Surrey has developed and demonstrated a proof of concept solution for fast and sustainable domestic production using aeroponic methods. The university is partnering with aeroponic specialist, LettUs Grow, to provide the technology and help scale greenhouse propagation in-line with targets.
The three-year partnership will make use of aeroponic technology for the rapid multiplication of willow cuttings. Aeroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using a nutrient-rich mist to irrigate plant roots. LettUs Grow will deploy a minimum of 16 aeroponic greenhouse systems across the country, including at Rothamsted Research, ready for the April 2023 tree planting season.
The project is led by Dr. Zoe Harris, an Innovation Research Fellow at the Natural Environment Research Council and Environment and Sustainability Lecturer at Surrey University. Her research focuses on how land can provide food and energy while minimizing environmental impacts. Harris said:
"If we are serious about meeting our climate targets, the UK will need to plant vast amounts of bioenergy sources and do so quickly. Having enough stock to ramp up planting to 720,000 hectares by 2050 represents a significant and undervalued bottleneck in the supply chain. Our innovation allows us to grow willow faster, with a higher yield on a smaller land footprint than traditional fields.
"We are confident that our technology could revolutionize the willow-cutting market. We'll be able to demonstrate more cutting on less land and do so flexibly in response to changes in market demand, minimizing waste and maximizing productivity."
The project will start exclusively growing willow, but during Phase 2, research will begin into other crops of interest. These will include hazel and silvergrass for sustainable biomass supply, as well as the planting of new forests and rewilding projects.
The team will also look into whether this technology can be used to accelerate the progress of plant breeding programs, for example, to increase yield and pest or disease resistance.
Jack Farmer, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer at LettUs Grow, said: "Like food, the impact of energy production touches everything around us. Increasing the amount of renewable generation in the UK energy mix is something that's vital to the sustainability of controlled environment agriculture. It feels very full circle for us, and we're excited to be brought on as partners for a project that can have such wide-reaching impacts."
Alongside LettUs Grow, the University of Surrey is working with academic and industrial partners, including Rothamsted Research, UK Urban AgriTech, Aberystwyth University, Forest Research, National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), NMC2, Glideology, and CapitalAgri.
Energy Minister Greg Hands said: "Accelerating home-grown renewables like biomass is a key part of ending our dependency on expensive and volatile fossil fuels. This £37 million of government investment will support innovation across the UK, boosting jobs while ensuring greater energy security for years to come."