Aston University and the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi have secured a £3 million grant to build a pair of sewage and waste-powered bioenergy plants in Birmingham and India.

The Research Councils UK’s Science Bridges funding award will create decentralised energy systems, one in West Bengal and one in Birmingham, which aim to tackle energy poverty in rural India and promote renewable energy in the United Kingdom. These combined heat and power plants will be powered by waste products derived from sewage, agricultural and municipal waste and crops grown on marginal land.

The fuel sources will be converted into bioenergy through combustion and pyrolysis - the chemical decomposition of a condensed substance by heating - and have been carefully chosen to overcome the difficulties of competition with food resources inherent in many existing biomass energy chains.

The three-year project, co-funded by Research Councils UK and the Indian government, combines the expertise of Aston’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) based at Aston University and Aston Business School.

In India the Aston team will be working alongside the Indian Institute of Technology to tackle unreliable energy supplies through the creation of a “mini” plant, which will be fuelled by local renewable and waste sources and solar-thermal energy. This will provide steam and refrigeration for food-processing factories and create regular and reliable job opportunities for about 100 people.

In Birmingham, a plant will contribute to the European Bioenergy Research Institute’s own heat and power supply.

Based at Aston University, it will use biomass and waste products such as wood, garden wastes and sewage sludge sourced from regional companies. The move will help Birmingham meet its 2025 targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent. In both cases, Aston Business School academics will create a viable economic blueprint to ensure the long-term security of the projects.

Dr Philip Davies, senior lecturer at the School of Engineering and Applied Science who is already investigating alternative energy use in water-scarce areas of India, said: “If we can bring renewable and sustainable energy supplies to areas of rural India we can help people escape from a cycle of poverty. Most Indian farmers are smallholders with limited technology for processing and preserving food. Reliable energy systems are needed to power such technologies and at the same time create employment. We’re also keen to show the UK market how we can provide modern energy services which reduce waste and significantly reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Andreas Hornung, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at Aston and Head of EBRI, said: “Working with the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, we aim to implement bioenergy systems that are efficient and low-emission over the whole life cycle, not just at the point of use. To achieve these goals we will be focusing on a range of potential fuel sources, based on the resources and waste products unique to each particular region. These have been carefully chosen to overcome the difficulties of competition with food resources, inherent in many existing biomass energy chains. Our systems will use direct combustion or converted fuels, to take advantage of the unique pyrolysis technology developed at Aston and the experience in steam and solar-thermal systems developed by the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.”

Dr Prasanta Day, reader at Aston Business School, said: “This project will help to develop a holistic business model for effective management of projects and operations across the bioenergy industry.”

Colleague, Professor Pawan Budhwar, said: “In India, in particular, we believe creating sustainable rural development and encouraging entrepreneurialism will be key benefits of the project.”