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An alternative harvest of new energy

Dr Beatrice Smyth remembers being at a wedding in a lovely Irish village. ‘Everything was perfect – except for one thing. Somewhere a farmer was spreading slurry. Wedding or no wedding, he had his work to do.’ 

For Beatrice, that smell, overpowering though it was that day, contains the scent of opportunity. ‘When we look for energy solutions, people think of importing palm oil biodiesel from the tropics or sugar cane ethanol from Brazil – but all you have to do is look out the window.
‘We have a huge resource. We have about the same number of cattle as people and they produce a lot of manure and slurry. As well as that we grow grass better than anywhere else in Europe. And so we have an energy crop with the added advantage that we can do this on our doorstep, benefiting local employment and the local economy.’
Beatrice, Lecturer in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is a member of the Clean Energies Research Group, one of 12 research clusters at Queen’s with a focus on sustainability issues.
Lecturer Beatrice Smyth
One of her most recently completed projects is Developing Opportunities in Bio-Energy – an action plan for anaerobic digestion and biogas – funded by Invest NI and coordinated by Queen's. This involved stakeholders such as the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, South West College and specialist industrial partners across Northern Ireland, including Agri AD and B9 Energy.
She says, ‘We’ve been looking at the potential for biogas here, analysing what could come from different sources, such as grass, slurry and household and garden waste. We’ve been looking at the economics of on-farm anaerobic digestion, potential markets and different uses, such as electricity,
transport and the different sub-sectors.’
Their conclusion – the potential is a major one but a cohesive policy framework is needed.
BeatriceWhen we look for energy solutions, all we have to do is look out the window. says, ‘The biggest environmental challenge I think the world faces is the growing consumption of natural resources and a lack of planning for the future. This is why energy-related research is so important.
‘Take natural gas – about 17 per cent of households in Northern Ireland have mains gas heating and gas-fired power plants produce nearly 50 per cent of electricity in the all island grid. Around 95 per cent of gas in the all-island grid is imported so if something were to happen to those supplies tomorrow we might need to dig out the candles and the woolly jumpers pretty quickly.’
She adds, ‘If you’re producing energy from waste, then you’re also managing the waste effectively. We need to realise that not only are you decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by displacing fossil fuels but you’re decreasing emissions because you’re managing the waste.
‘There are further benefits. You improve health outcomes because the water is better. Pollutants from sewage and slurry won’t get into the water supply. In transport, if you use gas instead of diesel, you improve air quality in the urban environment. There’s a big knock-on effect.’
Beatrice has given presentations at community development events and believes it is an effective method of getting the message across. ‘This is about management of our resources, which includes our waste. You can even call it harvesting. We have to get society to think differently, to think about what we can get from other sources. We all have to become a bit more involved in appreciating the difficulties we’re creating for ourselves.’