Devon agri-business zooms in on local knowledge

An innovative Devon business is working with Plymouth University to hone the design of its Anaerobic Digestion system, which turns agricultural waste into energy and fertiliser. By giving New Generation Biogas access to its facilities and expertise, the University has helped the Totnes firm observe the microbes that transform the waste close-up and understand what makes them thrive.

The firm used the world-class facilities at Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC), based on the University’s main campus, to capture vital information on the microbes. PEMC created high resolution electron microscopy images of the microbes, so the New Generation Biogas team could see how the micro-organisms establish themselves in the firm’s anaerobic digestion mechanisms.

Anaerobic digestion is a form of recycling in which micro-organisms break down organic materials to produce a methane-rich biogas that can be used as an energy source with a valuable fertiliser as a by-product. As well as saving money for farmers, producing biogas from waste is also helping to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture.

Since observing the tiny bugs up-close, New Generation Biogas has made significant improvements to the design of its anaerobic digestion process, Archemax®, which the team manufactures on site and sells to small- to medium-sized farms. This is a faster and more efficient design, resulting in up to 30 per cent higher yields than more conventional units. Archemax® was shortlisted for the UK AD & Biogas Industry Awards 2015.

New Generation Biogas is just one South West business to have benefited from PEMC’s expertise, through GAIN (the Growth Acceleration and Investment Network). Connecting Plymouth University with businesses, GAIN enables Plymouth University to work with partners across the South West to help businesses achieve their growth potential.

Established 25 years ago, PEMC was recently transformed as part of a £1.3 million three-year project, jointly funded by the University, JEOL (UK) Ltd and a £579,960 grant from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Along with 100 other companies, New Generation Biogas has benefited from free access to PEMC through this ERDF programme.

New Generation Biogas and Plymouth University are now embarking on a bigger collaboration. A Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) will see a KTP Associate, along with University academics, working with the firm to get an in-depth understanding of how best to manage the microbes and increase the performance of Archemax®, making it more competitive.

Stirling Paatz from New Generation Biogas said: 

“The insights we got from Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre have had a big impact on our business. Not only did the results help us make immediate improvements to our designs, making our product more efficient, they also showed us how we might benefit from future collaborations with our local University.

“We were really impressed by the University’s breadth of relevant commercial experience – not only in electron microscopy but also in working with microbes, which require specialist handling. We are committed to working locally where possible, so are delighted to have such a wealth of expertise on our doorstep.”
Adrian Dawson, Head of GAIN Projects and Partnerships said: 

“This is a great example of how a business and the University can gain mutual benefit from working together. While New Generation Biogas initially came in to us with a very specific request for Electron Microscopy services, the PEMC team introduced the team to Plymouth University’s Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology specialist, Dr Rich Boden, leading to a much deeper collaboration with the University.

“Our future working together could yield some really interesting opportunities for our students and researchers as well as helping the business to become more competitive.”