Farmers could generate useful additional income by turning some of the estimated 975,000ha (2.4m acres) of bracken growing in the UK into fuel pellets.
David Jenkins, director of the Welsh woodland advisory organisation Coed Cymru, says that the technology is in place to do the job. And, with heating oil at 31p/litre, the energy value of bracken pellets could make them worth about £140/t, compared with £135/t for wood or straw pellets.
Mr Jenkins acknowledges that bracken is already used as livestock bedding and to make potassium rich compost, but feels that its high calorific value gives it important biofuel potential. It could be harvested as bales in September and October for use in large boilers, or converted into pellets to be burned in commercial or domestic boilers.
“We have had EU funding to look at the scope for turning the cellulose component of a wide range of materials into fuel. This includes sawdust, cereal and rape straw, cereals and the cake left after the extraction of oil from oil seeds,” Mr Jenkins says.
“All have some potential, and we have developed a prototype utilisation system using an off-the-shelf grinder and a pelleter designed to make animal feed. We spent around £20,000 on a set-up capable of producing between 50 and 100kg/hour. It would be very easy to scale up to machines producing 0.5t/hour.
“We are prepared to pass on the results of all our trial work. There is a growing market for pellets which is now largely supplied by imports. The value is linked to the oil price and we believe that a decent margin can be made after covering all costs, especially when something like bracken is used.”