Eavesdropping on Bugs: UK Experts Tap into Insect Chatter to Clean Up South African Energy

Energy from bugs

Experts from the United Kingdom believe that South African energy production can be cleaned up by eavesdropping on insects.

By better understanding pests that plague sugarcane crops, they plan to boost yields that can be turned into bioenergy. The project involves a trio of companies, including York’s AgriSound, which has a team of experts working with agricultural bioacoustics. The UK’s Agri-Tech Centre and South Africa’s GYO Systems are also on the job, according to a press release.

The aims are to provide a stable, cleaner energy supply, use land in a way pleasing to farmers and developers, and create jobs and economic development, per the experts. Hydroponics, growing plants in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, is also part of the effort.

The entire scope of the operation leverages expertise from all three companies. “The increased availability of sugarcane has the potential to be used to generate bio-energy, a type of renewable energy with the potential to replace fossil fuels.

As biomass grows, it absorbs carbon from [the] atmosphere, which is then released when incinerated. This makes biomass carbon-neutral. Therefore, sugarcane offers massive economic and environmental rewards for South Africa,” Agri-Tech’s Jenna Ross said in the press release.

Pests and limited land for crops cap the amount of sugarcane that can be grown and harvested. “This project aims to solve two pressing local problems in one move,” Ross said. According to the International Trade Association, around 85% of South Africa’s electricity generation comes from coal, contributing to the world’s planet-warming pollution.

The United Nations reports that about 80% of global energy and 66% of electricity generation comes from burning fossil fuels. Doctors continue to find health problems associated with breathing dirty air, including headaches, heart and lung diseases, and even premature death.

As part of the solution in South Africa, AgriSound is going to bug the fields, listening to pests, such as the troublesome stalk borer, with high-tech sensors that provide a swarm of data. Farmers can track and eliminate damage, providing for better harvests, according to the company. Hydroponics will allow for sugarcane to be grown near urban areas where farming has typically been avoided. Using land to grow crops for fuel is a common biofuel barb that critics cite as limiting the science’s potential.

The US government notes that higher food prices and increased pollution related to agriculture can be a result. But energy officials in other parts of the world are at work on similar science. In Papua New Guinea, an operation is turning coconuts into biofuel in an effort to redefine the world’s energy standard to more sustainable sources.

Energy-efficient lights can prevent hundreds of pounds of air pollution annually, as well. In the meantime, auditory and hydroponic crop work in South Africa is being boosted by a UK government grant worth about £200,000.

The experts expect results within a year. “This project is more than an innovation in agriculture; it’s about reshaping the country’s energy landscape and uplifting its people to continue doing so on their own terms,” AgriSound founder Casey Woodward said in the press release.

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