Each year, Indonesia produces about 100 million tonnes of the rice straw, and around 60% of this waste is burned in open fields, causing air pollution which has been linked to higher rates of lung cancer.
The amount burned releases enough energy, if it could be harnessed, to power Indonesia’s households 10 times over.
A research consortium which includes Aston University aims to develop processes to capture more affordable energy from rice straw than ever before and demonstrate that it can be done on a commercial scale.
Part of the process involves a biomass conversion technology called pyrolysis. This involves heating organic waste materials to high temperatures of around 500°C to break them down, producing vapour and solid products.
Some of the vapour may be condensed into a liquid product called pyrolysis oil or pyrolysis bio-oil. Both the pyrolysis vapour and liquid bio-oil can be converted to electricity.
Current methods convert just 35% of the thermal energy of rice straw to affordable electricity. However, a newly patented combustion engine could see that doubled to 70%.
Energy extracted in this way could help low and middle-income countries create their own locally generated energy, contribute to net zero by 2050, create new jobs and improve the health of local people.
Dr Jude Onwudili who is leading the research team, said: “This project has huge potential – commercialisation of this combined technology will have significant economic benefits for the people of Indonesia through direct and indirect job creation, including the feedstock supply chain and electricity distribution and sales.
“About one million Indonesian homes lack access to energy and Indonesia’s 6,000 inhabited islands make sustainable infrastructure development challenging in areas such as Lombok Island [the focus of the project].
“The new techniques being explored could reduce environmental pollution, contribute to net zero and most importantly, provide access to affordable energy from sustainable local agricultural waste.
“Aston University is a global leader in bioenergy and energy systems, and I am delighted we received funding to explore this area.”
The project will start in April 2023 with a total of £1.5m funding from Innovate UK.