Project seeking to transform UK-grown biomass supply gets £4m

The project will produce new machines to multiply, plant and harvest Short Rotation Coppice willow crops
The project will produce new machines to multiply, plant and harvest Short Rotation Coppice willow crops

A ground-breaking new biomass project that could help the UK meet its net zero targets has been awarded nearly £4 million to help spearhead it.

The Net Zero Willow (NZW) project aims to rapidly scale up the UK biomass supply chain whilst also boosting the rural economy.

The proposed machines will facilitate the efficient multiplication, planting and harvesting of short rotation coppice (SRC) willow crops.

A fast growing, high yielding biomass crop, it can be grown in dense plantations of up to 20,000 plants per hectare.

It is a perennial crop with multiple stems and is harvested every three years. The crop is cut to ground level and the coppice grows back reaching 8 metres in height at maturity.

There are currently around 3,000 hectares of SRC willow planted in the UK.

Researchers say the project's benefits will include increased automation, reduced handling and lighter machinery that result in a lower environmental footprint.

The NZW project is led by Jamie Rickerby of Willow Energy, and includes a partnership comprising the consultancies Crops for Energy and Materia Nova.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has awarded the project £3.99 million, through the Biomass Feedstocks Innovation (BFI) Programme.

Jamie Rickerby of Willow Energy said the net zero challenge was significant and to achieve this radical and disruptive innovations were needed.

"Our innovations are being developed from the ground up to travel and operate on UK marginal land in the harshest of conditions," he said.

"They are not conceptual designs that only work in theory. They are designed to work in muddy fields in the British winter and with mass production in mind.

"The innovations use components that have been tried and tested in other applications and are readily available. The specialist parts are designed to be tough but also cheap and easy to replace when required.”

“Our inspiration for Net Zero Willow is based on the Sky cycling team model of improving performance through marginal gains.

"We believe we have come up with designs that will transform the sector in a very short time period by making small to significant improvements at every step of the way – reducing costs, increasing revenue, improving yields and reducing emissions.”

Kevin Lindegaard of Crops for Energy added: "These machines will provide the most significant steps forward in SRC planting and harvesting machinery for 30 years.

"This project ticks the boxes in many aspects – it will enable SRC to be expanded to parts of the country where there is a distinct need and onto terrain that other machinery simply can’t reach.

"The revenue benefits for growers together with the availability of reliable machinery will encourage more farmers to plant SRC willow, creating a snowball effect.”