The temporary closure of the Ensus bioethanol plant (pictured) on Teesside should not be seen as a set back to the development of UK biofuel capacity, visitors to a recent biofuels open day were told.

“There is no doubt there is a market for biofuel,” Harley Stoddart, HGCA research & knowledge transfer manager for industrial uses, told growers at the Agrovista & North East Biofuel Grower’s Network open day at Eryholme near Darlington. “The policy drivers are greenhouse gas emission savings and energy security.”

Companies such as Ensus, Vivergo and Vireol were not looking to invest millions of pounds in the sector on a whim and government targets would ensure the growth of the market, he said.

“The UK has said it will produce 3.5% (of total transport fuel) as biofuel by 2010, and while we are still in that reporting year, it looks like we will do it. The targets are then 5% by 2013 and 10% by 2020,” Dr Stoddart said.

“Until 18 months ago, the Department for Transport didn’t really care where biofuel came from, but they’ve changed their mind and fuel security is now an issue. If the UK doesn’t hit these targets we get fined. UK policy is based on this, the government can’t afford for you not to be growing for this market.”

Dr Stoddart also said the “food versus fuel” arguments were overly simplistic when it came to producing bioethanol from wheat.

“Feed wheat used for bioethanol only displaces feed wheat used for the feed market and it is still producing an animal feed. Acre-for-acre soya and wheat produce the same amount of protein, but the ethanol process produces both a quality animal feed and bioethanol fuel.” In the long-term, biofuel producers may pay suppliers based on alcohol yield, but for now he recommended growers chose the highest yielding varieties.

Variety selection

“When growing for bioethanol you’re looking for high starch and low protein,” explained Agrovista agronomist James Stark. “Most of the varieties we’re looking at are Group 4, with a few Group 3s. Robigus always does well on this farm* and Santiago is catching a lot of people’s eyes – although you’ve got to look after it if you are going to grow it.”

As the biofuel market develops, breeders are starting to actively target the sector. “Denman has been bred specifically for the biofuel industry,” said Mr Stark. Parent variety Glasgow has always produced high alcohol levels, although more data on the new variety, such as sprouting resistance, was still needed. Beluga was another variety which looked promising for biofuel use, he said.

Triticale continued to generate interest thanks to its ability to effectively scavenge nitrogen from the soil. With the greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuel production becoming increasingly important under European legislation and three-quarters of all GHG emissions associated with a wheat crop being due to the use of nitrogen fertiliser, this is an important consideration.

“In last year’s trial, the two triticale plots gave the highest yield as a second wheat, which was unexpected,” said Mr Stark. “Ensus doesn’t take triticale yet, but it might start if it looks good.” He admitted the challenge of volunteers still needed to be overcome: “If you grow it, it will probably come back the following year.”

Dr Stoddart also predicted a role for triticale as a biofuel feedstock: “All three [biofuel companies] have said they would [potentially] be happy to take triticale and there are added benefits for growers in the rotation. There have been suggestions of using lower amounts of nitrogen, but ADAS work for HGCA suggests that using the same level of nitrogen as for winter wheat should be used to increase yields.”

* The 2009-10 site at Eryholme consisted of a 10ha clay loam field following a crop of winter oilseed rape. Eleven winter wheat varieties and two varieties of triticale were sown at traditional seed rates.