The value of grass
In the Northern Netherlands, more than 18,000 tonnes of natural grass is produced annually in nature areas as a result of mowing carried out by the Dutch Forestry Commission. The disposal and processing of the mown grass is a costly expense for the Forestry Commission and fellow site managers. And not mowing is simply not an option.
‘Mowing is necessary for maintaining and developing grassland vegetation,’ explains Rieks van der Wal B.Eng., head of the Forestry Commission Groningen: ‘Grass that is not mown develops into forest formation and affects the unique vegetation that we as nature conservationists would like to keep.’
A waste problem that will only increase in the future, Van der Wal predicts: ‘It is expected that due to global warming, mowing will need to be intensified in order to maintain these vegetations. As a result, the amount of natural grass will increase, possibly even double.’
Time for innovation. Through the Regional Cooperative Westerkwartier, Van der Wal came into contact with Willem Foorthuis, lectureship Sustainable Cooperative Entrepreneurship, and Gerda Elema, project leader of the Research Centre Biobased Economy at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. Elema suggested that third-year students from the Institute for Life Science & Technology in collaboration with the innovation workshop IPW/Strong SME carry out research assignments into the valorisation of grass.
‘Within the innovation workshop students will be working on interesting, real-life cases in the region,’ explains Gerda Elema. A conscious strategy. Elema: ‘We find it useful, as the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, that our students can distinguish themselves during their studies and develop their skills in practice.’
Sugars, proteins, green fuel
Within the innovation workshop Strong SME students from the Hanze University of Applied Sciences went looking for answers with regards to all the things you can do with grass. Clean grass. Van der Wal: ‘Grass that is mown on the verges of motorways is often polluted with metals or otherwise. Grass mown and supplied from nature areas is a clean and completely natural product.’
The research leads to sustainable and innovative valorisation and new products that also pleasantly surprise Van der Wal: ‘It turns out that you can make paper from grass, substitute sugars, proteins, and that you can revalue grass for bio-refinery and into green fuel for cars as a replacement for diesel and petrol. A broad spectrum.’
As a qualitative addition to research and education on grass valorisation, the Research Centre Biobased Economy of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences organised a mini symposium with renowned speakers that was completely sold out. More than 200 interested parties, including scientists, the Dutch Forestry Commission, policy makers, water boards, farmers, mowers, foresters, entrepreneurs and students, all focused on the theme Green! All the things you can do with grass in the Onlanderij in Eelderwolde.
A successful collaboration between the Forestry Commission and students from the Hanze University of Applied Sciences which deserves to be followed up, thinks Rieks van der Wal: ‘Students still have that The Sky is the Limit mentality. They continue with the research until it proves them otherwise. That drive and creativity gives everyone involved in the grass project an energetic feeling.’