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How to use biomass from riverine areas? Two projects, two approaches, one PhD journey

Posted at 17/06/2019 by Swinda Pfau

A transdisciplinary approach to sustainable biomass use: combining green house gas emission calculations and interviews with river managers.

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Swinda Pfau

Radboud University Nijmegen

My Ph.D. project was very diverse in many ways: I worked in two (very) different projects, with two (very) different promotors, I used quantitative and qualitative methods and combined knowledge from different disciplines with experiences from practitioners in the field. This mix of topics and approaches offered the opportunity to look at the problem from different angles, which created interesting insights, but it also made my Ph.D. project challenging.

Source: RiverCare dissemination event in November 2016.

From Green Gas to RiverCare

I started my Ph.D. in Interreg project “Green Gas”, focussing on the integration of biogas production in the bio-economy. After two years, I switched to RiverCare, where I re-focused on the use of residual biomass from landscape management in riverine areas. The research in RiverCare matched my master’s degree in water management much better than Green Gas, but I found it challenging to combine the two topics in one Ph.D. thesis. To re-focus, I started a bit from scratch with a broad literature review on residual biomass. In the end, this chapter is maybe the weakest of my thesis, but was at the same time the most useful for me – it helped me to structure the problem and pinpoint what my last two chapters would be about.

PhD thesis as result of the Riverine biomass project.

Main findings

Overall, I found out that many choices influence whether biomass use contributes to a sustainable future. These choices are analysed and described in my thesis as part of the Riverine biomass project, for example: is the use of residual biomass, for example biomass released during vegetation maintenance in floodplains, better than cultivating biomass specifically for energy or materials? And what applications should we use biomass for if we want save as much CO2 as possible? The results show that in practice good evaluation criteria are lacking, choices are instead often based on a gut feeling. Energy applications generally save more CO2, but for many people material applications feel more valuable.

Left: Ph.D. thesis ceremony on April 18, 2019, at Radboud Nijmegen University. Right: Snapshot of riverine biomass for more sustainable use.

From research to practice

What helped me a lot to bring my research to practice were regular conversations with water managers and the participation in the “Biomass Alliance”, a collaboration of different parties interested in residual biomass use. Finding out about the questions that practitioners struggle with made my research much more relevant for practice. Since finalising the last two papers, I have had conversations with different stakeholders who were very interested in my results and confirmed that they were very useful to them. I successfully defended my PhD thesis on April 18, 2019 and will soon start a new job, outside of academia. I will be a project manager at RVO, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, part of the ministry of economic affairs and climate focusing on energy and CO2 reduction in industry.

Last modified: 13/12/2019