The University of the Highlands and Islands
University of Glasgow
University of Strathclyde
Environmental and Forestry
Food & Drink, Agritech and Aquaculture
Sustainable Thinking Scotland (STS) Community Interest Company is a social enterprise, based in Bo’ness, 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 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 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. STS 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.
The water remediation techniques STS proposed involving biochar had not been adequately researched, regulated or utilised within the EU, UK and Scottish markets. STS 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.
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 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 with UHI, whilst an initial consultancy project with the University of Strathclyde looked at in depth testing of Biochar including thermochemical changes.
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.
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 leveraged additional funding, including Scottish Enterprise’s Unlocking Ambition programme, and Firstport’s Catalyst Fund 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.
- The results of the research will/can feed into several STS projects.
- The project assists expansion into new water remediation markets, which offers new income streams which can be used to fund STS social support programmes.
- This initial project will open the door to further collaboration and research.
- A studentship through IBioIC has enabled STS to work with a PhD student over 4 years from the Chemical and Process Engineering Department at Strathclyde University to investigate each step of biochar production to make it more efficient for larger scale use.
- 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.
- STS successfully secured £190K investment from Firstport and Social Enterprise Scotland’s Catalyst Fund to enable them to bring their technology to market.
Benefits to academic partners
- 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 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 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 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.
STS have continued to make strides in developing their “Biochar” product and to understand the markets in which they can operate to position themselves as a sustainable social enterprise.
This initial project has opened the door to further collaboration and research and Interface have assisted STS to embark on other successful collaborations most notably with Adam Smith Business School at University of Glasgow where they have engaged with a range of student programmes from undergraduate to MBA. Projects include:
- a study into how STS could access the customers for the biochar/water quality services they are developing, typically Local Authorities and Large Estates owned by private individuals and companies and how best to engage with these diverse end customers and get past the trust barrier.
- identifying a route to market for the Biochar product; this included branding, operations, logistics and pricing.An MBA student team provided all of this and more. The final presentation and report provided STS with a clear route to market strategy, distinctive branding, pricing and costs as well as a functioning Shopify online store.
Other projects relating to environmental and sustainability issues are under discussion and Sean Kerr STS Director generously gives time to undergraduate and MSc programmes, student placements, and makes himself available for speaking and networking opportunities. The relationship continues to deepen and in 2022 Dr Nick Quinn, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship in the Business School, joined STS as a Non Executive Director.
Sustainable Thinking Scotland’s determination and hard work is paying off as they won Innovation of the Year Award at the Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards 2023.