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Isle of Wight farm turns waste straw into biofuel business

Sue Wheat
7th January 2010
An Isle of Wight-based farm has become the first UK producer of an alternative biofuel, for domestic use, made from its surplus straw.
The botanical heat logs are sold as an alternative to coal, wood or charcoal for households or businesses using wood burning stoves for heating.

Fuel Britannia Straw Logs was established last October, after purchasing machinery from Denmark to make the straw logs. After just two months the family-owned Marvel Farm in Merstone has produced and sold straw logs to houses and retail outlets all over the UK. Orders have come in despite minimal marketing and the company is covering its overhead costs.

Straw has a calorific value of 4.5 kilojoule per kilogramme, equating to kiln dried wood – but to present it in a marketable form, the straw needs to be compressed and bound. The Danish briquetting plant the family bought – which also creates straw logs as toys for pigs in the vast Danish Bacon industry – addresses this problem. The compression of the straw creates heat that melts the lignin in the cell walls. On cooling, the lignin ‘sets’ and the logs hold their form and can be uniformly packaged, and easily stored.

“We had been looking for a long time to work out what to do with our left-over straw from the farm," explained Caroline Knox, who runs the business with her father Tom Smith and brother John. A chance remark that ‘wheat was worth more as a fuel than a food, due to its calorie content’ led the family to consider Combined Heat and Power, bio digesters and biomass boilers as a means of utilising straw as fuel. Straw logs were being manufactured around Europe and Ireland, but not yet in the UK and, after further investigation and study trips the manufacturing plant was sourced.

Ironically, the family were refused a grant from South East England Development Agency, which was worried that the project was ‘too innovative’ and could risk the farm’s core business. But the family was so convinced of the business idea that they have covered the substantial investment themselves.

“Our next stage is to secure a larger wholesale buyer to take our sales forward next winter,” said Knox. “We know there is demand as a similar firm in Ireland has been inundated with business after appearing on a TV show.”

The straw used in the logs comes from wheat grown on the farm for the UK bread industry, peas for processing and oilseed rape grown for the coldpressed rape seed oil ‘Oil of Wight’ the farm also produces. All of these leave a straw by-product following harvest of the grain or seed.

“The really positive thing about this, apart from the fact that the logs are so easy to store and use, is that it is a really useful way of using the left-over crop,” said Knox. “We definitely did not want to produce fuel instead of food on our land and this is a great solution to the food versus fuel debate.”

Fuel Britannia currently has a capacity to produce 15 tonnes a day – or up to 5000 tonnes of logs a year. Currently 800 acres of land are in straw producing crop production and, with the opportunity to purchase straw from neighbouring farms, as well as increasing their own output there is sufficient raw material available locally.

The main sales problem they have encountered is that the straw logs are confused with wood chip briquettes, according to Knox. Providing clear marketing and information on this new product is therefore key, and the business has prioritised professional marketing through leaflets, adverts and a website.

Although the straw can be described as carbon neutral, Fuel Britannia does not claim to be fully carbon neutral. Although the carbon absorbed by the growing crop is released on burning, to be reabsorbed by the following growing crop, the farm requires a certain amount of conventional fuel to grow and farm its crops. The family is proactively looking at how to reduce the farm’s carbon footprint through decreasing the energy usage of its equipment and increasing the carbon uptake from the soil.

Fuel Britannia is also in the lucky position of knowing that competition from other farms that hear of the business opportunity is limited UK-wide. The fact that the straw needs to be reasonably dry in order for the logs to maintain their shape, means that only those farms in drier parts of the UK are suited to it.

Isle of Wight farm turns waste straw into biofuel business
Marvel Farm is selling its straw logs to homes and retail outlets all over the UK
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