An interview with Professor Tony Bridgwater – new director of EBRI

Professor Tony Bridgewater

Professor Tony Bridgwater became the new director of EBRI in November. In this Q & A interview he talks about his career, what drives him to work in the field and why he thinks the work at EBRI is so important.

Q What’s your background and how did you come to work at EBRI?

I’ve worked at Aston University for most of my professional career and created the internationally renowned Bioenergy Research Group in 1988. During my career I have managed to successfully bring in large amounts of European funding, raising close to £25m for the advancement of bioenergy research. I have also coordinated nine major EC research and development projects in bioenergy and am currently involved in six more.   In 2007, the University, recognising the growing importance of bioenergy and biofuels, invested £17m to establish the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI), which is where I have been based ever since, taking over as Director last month.

Q What’s your particular area of interest/expertise?

My research looks into fast pyrolysis as a key technology in thermal biomass conversion for power, heat, biofuels and biorefineries. Fast pyrolysis, as the name suggests, is a very quick form of pyrolysis, which heats biomass in under 2 seconds, turning 75% of the weight of the original feed into liquid. The liquid can then be used directloy as an energy carrier for heat and power.

Q What drives you to work in this field?

Ultimately success inspires me. Nothing can beat the feeling when you have good idea, win funding for it and exploit the opportunity. Academia is very competitive, so researchers who win funding usually have to be well established or else have completely fresh ideas.  On the other side hand, it drives me to know that I am advancing new technologies that will benefit the environment and contribute to sustainable energy. It is a very worthwhile cause.

Q Why is the work you and the team do at EBRI so important?

Europe has several huge bioenergy research institutes, with large numbers of employees and budgets to match, which are building new pilot plants and advancing new technologies at a rapid rate. The UK doesn’t have anything like this other than EBRI. The work we have going on here is really unique and through EBRI we have a genuine opportunity to compete against larger European institutions and establish the UK as a competitor in the field of international bioenergy research and technology development.

Q How do you think EBRI’s new facilities will enhance its work?

The new facilities will greatly strengthen our research activity, moving us further into areas such as combustion, anaerobic digestion and production of algae. Of course the pilot Pyroformer™ and demonstration scale gasifier plant is also of key importance, as we now have a working demonstrator to showcase our own unique technology, which also generates heat and power for the EBRI building and other parts of the University.  This will complement the smaller scale fast pyrolysis facilities and other processes which provide complementary technologies.

Q What role do you think EBRI will play in the future of bioenergy technology?

I believe that basic research being undertaken at EBRI will lead to exciting developments to enhance performance of biotechnologies and dramatically reduce their costs over the next few years. Also, I hope that our Pyroformer™ technology will be advanced even further and licensed to spin out companies, so that it can have a wide application in industry in the future. Thirdly, I believe that many more West Midlands businesses will experience the benefits of biotechnology through our work to help local industry develop renewable applications and processes.

Q Why is it important that businesses embrace bioenergy?

EBRI is working intensively with West Midlands businesses to help them understand what is possible in bioenergy arena and why this should be of interest to them. In particular, managing waste should be a huge incentive for businesses.  50% of domestic waste is organic in origin, which means that it has potential to be processed in the bioenergy process, rather than sent to landfill. Companies need to take an interest in trying to recover more value out of the waste rather than burning it inefficiently.

>> More about Professor Bridgwater’s career