image of man holding biochar

Background

Sustainable Thinking Scotland Community Interest Company (STS CIC) is a social enterprise, based in Falkirk, created to address a wide range of social and environmental issues. They operate a variety of projects that focus on topics such as food growing, community wellbeing and wood and green waste recycling. 

STS CIC currently produce biochar from wood waste. Biochar is a highly porous form of carbon obtained from baking wood within an oxygen-depleted environment and has the potential to draw and lock in nutrients and toxins from its environment. Until recently, the biochar STS CIC produced was used in an agricultural setting, utilising its production as a means of carbon abatement and as a soil amendment within their food growing projects. Sustainable Thinking wanted to research and create a biochar optimised for excess nutrient removal from water, helping to tackle harmful algae blooms and the nutrient pollution which causes them.

 

Challenge

The water remediation techniques STS CIC proposed involving biochar had not been adequately researched, regulated or utilised within the EU, UK and Scottish markets.  STS CIC wanted to engage with academic expertise to advance their production of biochar whilst also ensuring effective regulatory standards were put in place governing its manufacturing and subsequent use.

 

Solution

The company was referred to Interface through their engagement in Firstport’s LaunchMe accelerator, which is aimed at supporting Scotland's highest potential social enterprises.  After Interface put out a call to the relevant universities in Scotland, STS CIC decided to work collaboratively with both the University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI) and the University of Strathclyde to test biochar production from wood waste and investigate its potential use in nutrient removal. 

A Scottish Funding Council Innovation Voucher was used to fund the project.

UHI was the lead academic for the Innovation Voucher project, whilst the University of Strathclyde, with additional funding support, provided further material science testing and research support via IBioIC (Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre) funded PhD students.

The results from this research should help inform SEPA's (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) decision making on how to license and regulate biochar's use in water.
 

Benefits

The new/enhanced product to be developed is a biochar which has qualities which allow it to draw in and bind to excess nutrients within water; adsorbing and removing them, resulting in improved water quality. This will provide a new solution to the growing problem of blue-green algae blooms in freshwater and also act to recover phosphorus and nitrogen from water. The biochar will act to stop nutrient pollution at source, preventing algal blooms and eutrophication, whilst creating a recoverable nutrient loaded carbon biochar that can be re-used on land. This would not only act to maintain/provide carbon within soil but would also provide a slow release (nitrogen/phosphorous rich) fertiliser. UHI’s ERI (Environmental Research Institute) already has significant current interests in this area, not least as partners in a €10M+ EU NW Europe Project (Phos4You) which demonstrates phosphate recovery and re-use innovations within Europe.

 

Benefits to company:

  • The Innovation Voucher unlocked additional funding, including Scottish Enterprise’s Unlocking Ambition programme, that will be used to support follow-on R&D work with the two universities.
  • New research data will be collected in collaboration with ERI-NHC (Environmental Research Institute - North Highland College UHI) which will be of long-term benefit to STS CIC.
  • The results of the research will/can feed into several STS CIC projects.
  • The project assists expansion into new water remediation markets, which offers new income streams which can be used to fund STS CIC social support programmes.
  • This initial project will open the door to further collaboration and research.
  • Project results will provide evidence to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency regarding the efficacy of the product and techniques, which will assist with regulation and encourage further research funding.

 

Benefits to academic partner:

  • As much of ERI’s work in the Water Quality Innovation space focusses on low cost/sustainable solutions to water quality management and treatment, their aims with STS CIC are very much aligned and they see significant scope to collaborate further.
  • Biochar related research is of great interest to ERI and they are keen to work with STS CIC to provide quantitative data to support the efficacy/advancement of their product. They are equally keen to see any work generated published in peer reviewed international research journals and will help STS CIC achieve this.
  • Results generated can feed into other existing projects, many of which also focus on nutrient removal/recycling and biochar production/functionalisation. 

 

Benefits to Scottish Government

Despite the rise in recurring algal blooms in water bodies across the UK, biochar field-based water remediation remains absent from the £1.3 billion UK water treatment market.  Biochar technology development will help create a range of safe, low cost, low impact environmental remediation services which are more financially accessible, encouraging landowners and custodians to invest in their greenspaces, offering a comprehensive/easily accessible solution to long term problems; leading to climate action and contributing to Scotland’s net zero targets.
 

Sean Kerr

“We are very happy with Interface and the entire Innovation Voucher process as a whole. You managed to make what seems like a daunting process at the outset, very much pain free. The Innovation Voucher has also helped us unlock additional funding from the University of the Highlands & Islands as part of their WQIG (Water Quality Innovation Group) Programme so the voucher has really helped the project progress!  Thanks again for all your help and guidance with everything, we really appreciate it all.”  

Sean Kerr, Director, Sustainable Thinking Scotland CIC
Dr Mark Taggart

“ERI researchers have enjoyed working with Sustainable Thinking Scotland Community Interest Company (STS-CIC) over the past year – the work and ambition of STS-CIC is very impressive, and they have a clear vision regarding where they would like to take their biochar research and development. With the support of UHI’s KE Team and Interface, the Innovation Voucher work has progressed very smoothly, and this is hopefully just the first step for STS-CIC in producing new biochar related products and services that can support their longer term social and sustainability targets.” 

Dr Mark Taggart, Senior Research Fellow, Environmental Research Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands

Sustainable Thinking successfully secured £190K investment from Firstport and Social Enterprise Scotland's Catalyst Fund to enable them to bring their technology to market.