Straw – the next eco-innovative pacesetter

Straw – the next eco-innovative pacesetter

Straw – the next eco-innovative pacesetter

by Markus Haastert, Anne-Kathrin Kuhlemann

Background: Biomass and natural ecosystems

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The effort towards lessening the impact of negative human activities on the environment is yet to grow. The European Union stated that eco-innovation is not always about new materials, it can also be about finding new approaches to old materials. Imagine that straw, one of the most underutilized agricultural residues is assuming a leading role in the eco-invention of energy mix and building construction? This may be evidence that global greenhouse gas emission would be lessened to 80 percent by 2050 to thwart the risks associated with environmental degradation. The trending innovative and sustainable use of straw may just be the much-awaited environmentally solution.
The ecosystem produces plenty of natural biomass waste, such as forest, wood and agricultural products. Composting of natural biomass waste converts such wastes into valuable soil amendments, enhancing soil quality through a controlled process by stabilizing organic material.  Composting is highly beneficial in the farming industry, as it improves crop growth, destroying weed seeds, as well as plant and human pathogens. Agricultural straw residue is normally used for composting. Straw is a complex carbon made of cellulose, hemi-cellulose, and lignin; which are components that are resistant to decomposition. Such components are common in plants, providing them with stability and strength. When erosion or grading control permits are required as per local regulations, farmers tend to create 1 or 2 percentage of straw bay hales, as it helps reduce erosion (Brewer et al, 2013).
Currently, a vast amount of unused agricultural straw residues exists around the world. China, India, and the United States are ranked as the major producers of wheat and rice straw residues (Mantanis et al, 2000). China produces more than approximately 620 billion tons of straw a year, ranking as one of the most abundant straw producers in the world. China’s usage of straw for energetic purposes improves environmental protection and sustainable development in a continuous growing-economical nation (Zeng & Ma, 2005).
The production of straw is considered a risk to some farmers, as haulms may break during storms or strong winds. Shorter stem crops have been bred in order to assist with mechanized harvesting, significantly reducing wind damage. Long stem straws injured by hail usually break due to strong winds, or are simultaneously damaged by diseases (Paulsen, 1997). Therefore, farmers prefer crops with shorter stems, such as cereal crops, which are bred to grow shorter. Consequently, biomass production composed of long-stem straws is significantly reducing, affecting negatively the environmental benefits of its usage.
We all know straw, the agricultural by-product; the dry stalks of cereals we leave in the farm after the grain and chaff have been removed. This dry stalk makes up about half of the yield of cereals crops such as oats, rice, rye, barley, etc. These dry stalks are gathered and stored in a straw bale. It’s surprising to know that inasmuch as this residue is considered of less value, its uses are amazing, much more its unimaginable emerging innovative uses in the future energy mix and construction of houses.

Innovation: from food to carbon-negative buildings

You would marvel at the historic and immediate use of straw across the globe. We are used to using straw as animal feed— roughage component of diet to feed cattle or horses. It is used in basketry for making bee skeps and linen baskets and bedding for livestock or humans. Surprised? Straw-filled mattresses referred to as palliasse is still in use in many part of the word – not least due to the positive health effects the silica contained in many straws, e.g. from rye and rice, reportedly have. In fact, silica converted to silicon carbide (SiC) has dozens of industrial applications ranging from electronics to jewelry. Straw itself is used in areas such as erosion control in construction sites, hats production, and production of cucumber houses, cultivation of mushrooms, mulching materials, production of ropes and shoes especially in Korea’s Jipsin sandals, production of compostable food packaging materials and in paper-making.
Straw is now used to develop safe, energy-efficient and sustainable construction practices across the globe. The materials are locally available and could easily be used to produce comfortable, safe, affordable, durable, and aesthetic alternative to costly and environmentally-unfriendly alternatives. In People’s Republic of China for instance, straw-bales construction is currently in vogue to build houses and other public buildings using waste rice straw. As at 2005, over 600 houses have been completed and the benefits are amazing especially its eco-friendly benefits. It has significantly reduced coal consumption and CO2 emissions; lowers risks of respiratory disease and offer much resistance to earthquakes, etc.

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In Lithuania, the Ecococon’s straw panel is another clear example of successful straw potential in building industry. The panels are from straws tightly-packed into wooden frames which are used to build houses built on wooden bases and mounted on a waterproof layer; once built the houses would be plastered as traditional brickwork. The house can be long-lasting and not easily burnt, as report shows that it can be used for decades or centuries. The construction is low-intensity with no need for concrete or high-energy consuming equipments. In fact, at the end of the house’s lifespan, the company said it can be dismantled and the materials reused. This reduces environmental degradation associated with demolition of brick-built houses and thus promotes environmental health.
In the English city of Bradford, a whole business park is built with straw. The Inspire Bradford Business Park comprise two buildings which provide 2,800 square meters of shared facilities, workshops, offices including rooms and café. This park is believed to be Europe’s largest straw constructions. It’s built in accordance with sustainable principles having met the rating for energy efficiency of the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method.
The potentials of straw seem so remarkable that the European Union supports EUROCELL project with €1,611,096 through its Competitiveness and Innovation Programme. This project is geared towards researching the certification of straw panel building as a basis for market development and acceptance of the approach. It’s important to note that Modcell is a partner in this project. Modcell is one of the first products to make extensive carbon-negative building a commercial real existence. It employs the remarkable thermal insulation qualities of straw bale and hemp construction to form prefabricated panes. This aids construction of super-insulated, high-performance, low energy buildings with renewable, carbon sequestering, locally-sourced and sustainable building materials.

Potential: A source of energy
Most eco-aggressive development agencies across the world are currently employing straw as option in their possible future energy mix. In Germany, the findings of TLL (Thueringian regional institute for agriculture), the DBFZ (German biomass research centre) and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) showed a promising result.
The findings of this experiment which employed a total of 30 million tons of cereals straw produced annually revealed that 8 and 13 million tons of straw could be used sustainably for energy or fuel production. This undoubtedly highlights the potential contribution of straw to renewable sources of energy. The finding further showed that this potential could give 1.7 to 2.8 million average households with electricity while providing 2.8 to 4.5 million households with heating.
This is a potential energy alternative and environmental remedy to unsustainable energy production. With the rising demand for electricity which is expected to rise to 2.7 times higher by 2025, straw may be the pacesetter in scaling up power supply that will meet world demand of electricity without compromising ecological health. This means that there is hope for production of over 90% of cleaner energy that must replace coal and natural gas plant. Does this seem a daunting task?
Straw has such numerous benefits, it seems we urgently need to reverse the current trend towards shorter haulms. The many researchers dedicated to developing different types of varieties resistant to winter hardiness, strong winds, hail and storms (Limagrain Cereal Seeds, 2010) are hopefully also focusing on strengthening haulms instead. For the production of wheat straws, new varieties of wheat are constantly created, undergoing testing by the National Variety Trials Project (NVT), and the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) in the United States (Shackley et al, 2014). The creation of long stem crops with stronger haulms and highly resistant to hardiness are necessary. When combined with traditional farming techniques such as hedge growing would allow for the continued production of plentiful straw.

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The innovative and environmental-friendly use of straw in boosting global energy mix and in cushioning the effect of harmful practices and environmental degradation associated with building construction is the new phase of eco-invention. The use of straw in all its forms is reliable, sustainable, portable, affordable, comfortable, abundant and flexible; thus, it offers a great alternative for the world’s clean energy demand.  Straw, it seems, is the leader in our future eco-inventions.


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