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Woolvation Report Summary

Project ID: 655928

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Woolvation (Development of sheep wool blocks to be used for greenhouse cultivation)

Reporting period: 2015-04-01 to 2015-09-30

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Woolvation has the objective of introducing an eco-innovative, sustainable approach to greenhouse tomato cultivation in Europe by supplying sheep wool as cultivation raw material.
With a cultivation volume of around 152 million tons in 2009, tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in the world, followed by cucumbers, bell peppers and melons. It is estimated that around 90% of the world’s tomato production volume is grown in greenhouses, out of which roughly 75% rely on the Holland System. The Holland System is characterised by long rows of cultivation blocks, which are used as a growing base for tomato plants. The most commonly used cultivation blocks are made from rock wool. Rock wool blocks however, have three major problems:
- They are produced in a very energy and emission intensive process;
- Rock wool does not contain any nutrients. When used as a growing base, it is therefore necessary to add all necessary nutrients to the irrigation water;
- At the end of their lifetime (one greenhouse season), rock wool blocks are considered a hazardous, non-recyclable toxic waste and have to be disposed of at high fees.

Woolvation introduces a new, fully sustainable approach for greenhouse cultivation. Instead of relying on rock wool, the Woolvation project aims at introducing cultivation blocks made from raw sheep wool (Woolvation blocks). The commercial production and usage of Woolvation blocks will be highly beneficial for the environment and bears significant economic potential.
From the environmental point of view Woolvation blocks offer advantages such as:
- Sheep wool in these days has very little use (only 5% of Europeans production ), goes mostly back in for land filling and is sometimes even burned. With a new application for raw sheep wool sheep farmers will receive a selling opportunity instead of wasting their wool;
- The use of Woolvation blocks in green houses means that the addition of fertilizers can be reduced to a minimum;
- After its lifetime (one season) Woolvation blocks don’t need to be disposed but can potentially be further used as agricultural fertiliser or be mixed into fermentation processes in bio-gas plants.

In addition to these environmental benefits Woolvation blocks create new business opportunities for sheep and tomato farmers. The new application for sheep wool in tomato cultivation creates a new market for shepherds on which they can sell their wool. Tomato farmers benefit in two different ways. Firstly, an initial field test of Woolvation blocks has shown a 10% higher tomato yield compared to cultivation on rock wool blocks, creating a major business opportunity for green house farmers. Secondly, studies suggest that natural nutrients support a more natural tomato taste an increase the amount of antioxidants within the plant, thus helping to grow tastier and healthier products.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

1. Technical feasibility study of existing machinery

The process for the production of cultivation blocks from raw sheep wool included four process steps which have been studied:

Process step 1 – Fluffing up sheep wool
In total 500 kg sheep wool have been shredded with the shredder of MST. Based on observations and results gained during all shredding trials a list of technical modifications has been developed. However, the main conclusion for the first process step is that fluffing up sheep wool (before or after sanitation) with the existing shredding machine is possible. With the implementation of suggested modification MST believes that a full scale and automated shredding of sheep wool is feasible.

Process step 2 – Sanitation of sheep wool
Sanitation trials were done primarily at lab-scale with different methods, and secondly at full size trial (500 kg) was conducted using hot air flow as a method. As the tests did not deliver a clear result it was concluded that the sanitation of sheep wool needs to be investigated more in depth before a suitable technology can be developed at full scale.

Process step 3 – Sewing of sheep wool
The sewing of shredded sheep wool did not show any problems. The attached figure 7 show the sewed sheep wool in the form of a coil.

Process step 4 - Quilting of sheep wool
The process of quilting became necessary due to the fact that the sewing delivers mats of about 2 cm thickness, the block, however, has to be 8-10 cm high. The quilting process, as much as the sewing, did not show any problems. However, it was concluded, that for the production of cultivation blocks which will be accepted by greenhouses a more even surface is desirable. Hence some modifications to the quilting are necessary.

2. Requirements of block parameter

Additional to processing tests as described above, the requirements of block parameter were investigated by a comparison of two types of rockwool blocks against the self-produced sheep wool block. Parameters that were taken into consideration for the comparison were (i) dimensions, (ii) the bulk density, and (iii) the water holding/releasing capacity. The main conclusion of these tests was that rockwool blocks have a better water holding capacity due to an orientation of fibers. For reaching at least some fiber orientation also in sheep wool blocks technical solutions for the above described process must be developed.

3. Overall conclusion of the feasibility study

During the feasibility study entirely untreated raw sheep wool has been successfully processed into cultivation blocks. Although the produced cultivation blocks were not in perfect shape according to greenhouses requirements, the study has shown that the existing machines of MST in principle can be used for the processing of sheep wool. Furthermore the following conclusions can be made:
a) Each of the process steps (except for the sewing) need to be modified/adapted for processing of sheep wool;
b) Each processing step had its own speed. Sewing and quilting were already fast enough from an economical point of view, the shredding was much slower than the sewing and the sanitation was only tested in batch production for the study. For the development of an automated production line speeds have to be homogenised;
c) Currently rock wool blocks are delivered and used in plastic bags. As a contingency plan for not perfectly shaped sheep wool blocks a similar approach (but environmental friendly) should be discussed;
d) Sanitation of sheep wool seems to be feasible, however, significant investigations and developments are necessary;
e) A technical modification to one of the process steps for giving the sheep wool fibers an orientation would be desirable and should be investigated.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

8. Project continuation
Due to the promising results of the feasibility study we (MST) are proposing the continuation of the project. In order to reach the overall goal of introducing Woolvation blocks to European greenhouse cultivators, four main S&T objectives must be implemented:
a) The development of a sanitation system for sheep wool and its integration to the overall process
b) The modification to existing machine as described in the chapters 2-5
c) A large scale (1.000 kg) production of Woolvation blocks for tests in greenhouses
d) Tests of Woolvation blocks in greenhouses, including the development of an irrigation and fertilizing concept

In order to reach these objectives, we have already developed a Woolvation business plan which includes
• Quantitative data of the European raw sheep wool market;
• Quantitative data of the cultivation material demand in Europe;
• A study of competing cultivation materials;
• An estimation of required machine modification and investment costs;
• An estimation of processing costs and the costs of the final product;
• An outlook for the potential economic impact;
• A marketing strategy for fast market uptake;
• And an internal operational plan

For continuation we are suggesting a Phase 2 project which we are willing to coordinate an in which we would be responsible for the S&T objective b) and c) from the above list. As we are not able to undertake all requested developments and tests by ourselves, we propose to build up a consortium involving competences as follows:
 Experts for sanitation to support the development of a lab-scale sanitation process
 An engineering office for the scale up of the sanitation process and a 3D CAD design
 At least one greenhouse for conducting cultivation tests on Woolvation blocks
 Three partners (from RO, GR and ES) for technology transfer (either companies or associations)

9. Socio-economic impact
As the Woolvation feasibility study reveald that the processing of raw sheep wool into cultivation blocks for greenhouses is possible (sanitation has yet to be developed). The aim of MST is to introducing cultivation to the greenhouse market, expecting the following socio-economic impacts:

Economic benefits for three industrial areas are expected from successful implementation of Woolvation blocks:
a) MST as the producer of blocks will enter a new market with an innovative product, which will lead to a growth in turnover and profit;
b) Sheep farmers will be given a new appllication for their wool, which means a new revenue for farmer on European level;
c) Greenhouse operator will get a low price product (compared to rockwool) which offers a potential yield increase by up to 10%, and also minimise disposal costs.

In long term the obove mentioned economic benefits will support the challenges for agriculture and rural areas development, will increase the competitiveness of European greenhouse operators, and will thus help to safeguard and even create new jobs in Europe.

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