‘The best of both worlds’


Composite image: on the left scientific equipment taking measurements from plants growing in a lab, on the right a tractor working in a crop field

A new cohort of 24 postgraduate researchers from Lancaster University are working with local businesses to help support the development of carbon-saving products and services.

Mollie Frost has recently started her dream PhD – researching the carbon capturing potential of cement bypass dust (CBD), a waste product of cement production, which is used by farmers to improve pastureland. 

Mollie is the second Lancaster University PhD researcher to collaborate on CBD with Silverwoods Waste Management, a family firm based in Accrington, Lancashire, which recycles waste for use on farms as substitute fertilisers.

Mollie’s PhD is part the £14m Eco-I North West R&D programme, which recruits graduate researchers to work with small and medium sized enterprises who want to develop innovative carbon saving products and services.  The projects are co-designed with the business, who provide a mentor to work alongside academic supervisors.

Managing director Julian Silverwood is an enthusiast for the programme, which provides scientific evidence to evaluate the efficacy his products, potentially opening up new markets and helping customers optimise its use.

"We have established a fabulous working relationship with Lancaster University, it’s helping to propel our business forward, the costs are negligible for any company and you get them back from R&D tax credits."

For Mollie, who graduated with a degree in Physical Geography from Swansea University last summer, her PhD offers ‘the best of both worlds’.

"I saw this opportunity to do something that is actually going to be useful to an environmentally conscious company, while staying in research and furthering my knowledge, especially working with carbon capture."

Mollie is one of 20 new PhD and four new Masters’ researchers, who are working with businesses across the North West. Their projects cover a wide range of sectors including renewable energy, flood management, electric vehicles, waste management, food production, air quality, biotechnology and fashion. They span many disciplines including business, environmental sciences, chemistry, engineering and computing. Topics range from using green chemistry to help develop vegetable based waxes to replace petrochemical products to forecasting electric vehicle energy demands on the national grid.

The programme is led by the award-winning Centre for Global Eco-Innovation, which has developed this collaborative research model over the past eight years. It has already assisted over 700 SMEs and supported more than100 graduate researchers to help develop over 250 new low carbon products.

Mollie will spend her three years quantifying how much carbon is captured in the soil through the enhanced weathering and other chemical processes that occur when CBD is applied to pasture, which also captures carbon through photosynthesis and rhizodeposition (carbon-rich molecules exuded from the roots). She will also do a carbon lifecycle analysis, looking at the carbon emitted by manufacturing, packaging, transporting and applying CBD, and the carbon saved by not producing conventional fertilisers and keeping waste out of landfill.

"I am looking at to what extent we can create a net decrease in carbon and how many of the carbon emitting steps we can neutralise through carbon sequestration," Mollie explains. "With the UK Government aiming to reach net zero by 2050, we need technologies and products which help us sequester more carbon."

Mollie’s research builds on the work of another Lancaster PhD researcher. Rachel Baxter will shortly complete her PhD with Silverwoods Waste Management, quantifying the impact of CBD on plant growth.

"Bypass dust is used as a liming agent to improve the pH of soil and is also very high in potassium, which is very important for plant growth," said Rachel, who joined Lancaster University after studying horticulture at Myerscough College as a mature student.

"Farmers like CBD because they don’t have to pay for lime and potassium fertiliser. It has been used for years, in other countries as well as the UK. While there is anecdotal evidence that it helps good pasture growth, my research is evaluating whether it is actually effective."

Using field trials and chemical analysis of soil and plant samples, Rachel showed that CBD promotes plant growth, but also that some farmers are using more than they need. She looked at the UK region by region, analysing which form of CBD would work best in each area, depending on the soil, and what rate of application will optimise growth.

"This can help inform Silverwood about the best places for them to expand into and can inform the rates at which CBD is used."

Rachel found working with a company brought many advantages, as well as the satisfaction of knowing her research will be useful.

"The connections I have got from it have been amazing; if I needed anything Silverwoods would help or they would know someone who could."

The company found a farm to host her field trials, and then came to the rescue when lockdown put her field work and lab analysis on hold.  

"They arranged for me send my samples away for analysis and put me in contact with the farmer who offered to keep an eye on my plots.

"We had regular round table meetings between me, my supervisors and Julian from Silverwoods, where we would bounce ideas around: it gave me a lot more structure than I was expecting."

Julian says the benefits of the scheme make it a ‘no brainer’ for his business.  

“The research has given us a lot of credibility with our clients, with farmers and with the regulator. We’ve now got a far better understanding of the product chemically and how it actually works in the field. This means we can be much more specific about the amount needed for different crops and soil types. That’s not just useful for us but for farmers as well.

"The work Mollie is doing on carbon is going to have huge benefits for our customers, enabling them to offset against their greenhouse gas emissions."

Professor Ian Dodd of the Lancaster Environment Centre, who co-supervises both Mollie and Rachel said “It is often challenging to sustain academia-business collaboration beyond the original funding scheme. Soil amendments can provide long-term benefits, so running back-to-back projects provides us with a unique research opportunity, thanks to the Centre for Global Eco-innovation’s track record in attracting funding and Julian’s enthusiasm for the research.”

 

Eco-I North West are still looking for businesses interested in low carbon innovation to partner with, with 2 to 12-month R&D projects now available. Businesses can find out more here, and should contact us (business@cgeinnovation.org)  to discuss suitable opportunities. Support is available to ERDF eligible businesses across Cumbria, Lancashire, Liverpool City Region, Cheshire & Warrington and Greater Manchester. Eco-I NW is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

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