Anaerobic Digestion: its potential to improve the economic and environmental performance of organic farming systems (The Academic Perspective)

Student: John Walsh
Company partner: Fre-Energy
Academic Supervisor: Dr Prysor Williams

The Project

The project was a collaborative project between John Walsh, Fre-Energy and myself, a project that involved anaerobic digestion. The main purpose of the project was to see what advantages can be offered by anaerobic digestion and what the value can be to the local society, economy and perhaps to the company who own the system. This was a cutting-edge project in the field.

Economic + Environmental Benefits

What this project did that was different from other projects was that it placed an economic value on the environmental benefits that anaerobic digestion can offer over the short term. Over the long term, this type of work has the potential to offer wider societal benefits, for instance an improvement in water quality; this in turn can affect the tourism industry, water companies and so on. In addition to this is of course the fact that anaerobic digestion provides a source of renewable energy, reducing CO2 emissions.

There are many people who can benefit financially from the results of this research, the taxpayer benefits, as do large, medium and small private companies; so there are many economic and environmental advantages and I think that this is highlighted in the project.

The School

This project has made a big difference in raising the profile of the school, we have made new contacts in the university and further afield, we have been able to use the results from the project as a platform for another research project.

Engaging with Companies

As a School we have been engaging with anaerobic digestion companies for many years, providing them with informal advice; what this project allowed for was the creation of something formal for the first time. In the case of Fre-Energy, there was an opportunity to work closely with them over a period of three years and strengthen our relationship. I believe strongly in conducting research that is relevant to someone, and if I’m being honest I’m not sure sometimes who really benefits from a
lot of the research that is done; this is why I think that the KESS project is an excellent opportunity to engage with a business and to undertake some real world and relevant research.

I think that working with companies raises our profile and makes industry more aware of the benefits of working with us; word gets around as it were. I think it’s very easy for academics to work with academics in a bubble and forget about the people that are in this industry every day.

The advantages of working with the university begin to become apparent to businesses and so on, and this is something I would like to do more of in the future.

Student Benefits/Skills Development

John came from an economics background; he didn’t actually have any practical experience of working in laboratories. The PhD involved some soil science, water science, and economics of course, and this meant that John had to develop a variety of skills in a short time. I remember the first time John entered the lab, he wasn’t very comfortable and I wasn’t very comfortable to see him entering the lab either; however, he received training and over time he became adept in labwork. John’s writing skills also developed while working on his PhD and not just in terms of academic writing, he wrote a variety of documents, ranging from academic research papers, reports and user guides, which will be of huge advantage to him in moving forward in his career.

John had a great deal of positive experiences while he was completing his PhD that he would not have had if it were not for the KESS project; of course he had to spend some time with the company as part of the KESS scheme but he had a chance to write reports for them and so on. It helped John to think constantly ‘what research am I doing? How can it be of benefit to industry, and is it relevant to industry?’

Internal Collaboration

While working on the KESS project with John, we worked with economists in the University; given that this is not an area that I had worked in before, I worked with some colleagues for the first time. This has certainly broadened my research horizons. We would be much more confident now as a School to develop collaborative research projects that encompass an element of economics, I now have the contacts to make such a project work.

New Opportunities/Next Steps

We as a School have been successful in attracting DEFRA funding worth £70,000 to research into anaerobic digestion. I’m not sure whether we would have got the money without the KESS project,
to be honest. In terms of next steps with the company Fre-Energy, they are a partner in the DEFRA project, an unexpected result from the KESS collaboration which will raise the profile of a company within the convergence area and with a national audience.

Positives of KESS

I have looked in the past at projects that are funding research and it is good to see that KESS funds different fields, it’s not just about the sciences but also the humanities, it is allowing the research profile of the university as a whole to be raised, which can only be a good thing.


I would be very happy if there were a KESS II, often once someone has opened the door it’s possible to attract more companies to collaborate, to do research and that will provide a wider benefit than just to the academic world.