Development of bio-based, low carbon and low cost building materials with improved thermal and acoustic properties – harvesting the potential of vegetal fibres. NERC GW4+ DTP NPIF studentship Ref: 3174

About the award


Main Supervisor: Dr Raffaele Vinai, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Co-Supervisor: Prof. Pete Walker, Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, University of Bath

Co-Supervisors: Mike Cooper (Miscanthus Nursery Limited), David Stone (Agrikinetics Ltd)

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students. Successful candidates must be able to start their projects in October 2018

Location: University of Exeter Streatham Campus, Exeter, Exeter, Devon EX4 4QJ

Project Description:
In the framework of the Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, Member States committed themselves to reducing GHG by 20% by 2020, raising this commitment in 2011 and targeting a reduction of GHG by 80-95% by 2050 (compared to 1990 level). The EU built environment is responsible for 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions.
Miscanthus x Giganteus is a crop with a high yield (15 t/ha). It is a sustainable, fast growing, non-invasive, perennial energy crop. It can grow in degraded land and has phytostabilisation properties. It has a range of applications from land restoration to carbon sequestration, utilisation of fibres, energy production, and potential utilisation of ashes in a fully circular approach. Miscanthus fibres are a very promising source for developing novel, low cost, low carbon bio-based building materials with improved insulation properties, in line with the Clean Growth Grand Challenge and the GW4 community “Circular economy for affordable, low-carbon secondary raw materials” submitted to the Initiator Fund Round 10.

Project Aims and Methods:
The project aims at the development of building materials harvesting the full potential of miscanthus fibres. Although some applications have already been identified, the project will investigate the properties of each component of miscanthus product, listing possible end-products and prioritizing those with higher potential for commercial deployment in short to medium term. Building on available experience on “hempcrete”, concrete-like materials will be developed investigating parameters such as fibre dimensions, binder content, curing conditions, and optimization of mix proportions. In order to improve the eco-profile of the product, binders different from Portland cement will be considered, such as lime and a new class of binders called geopolymers. Preliminary work carried out by CASE partners on the production of miscanthus fibreboards will be further developed and the potential of fibreboard alone and composite sandwich-like structures will be investigated. The project will determine production parameters and will assess technical properties of developed materials (e.g. achievable mechanical strength, thermal conductivity), along with preferred fields of application. In-depth LCA and and LCC analysis will allow to determine the eco-profile of the developed products and their appeal on the building material market, using existing off-shelf products as benchmark for targeted comparison.


Fig 1:
Prototype of fibreboard produced with Miscanthus
Fig 2:
Miscanthus cultivation in Somerset.


The candidate will have a strong interest in sustainable materials and an engineering or environmental background. Previous experience in concrete production and testing, LCA/LCC analysis and methodology, and an awareness of the CO2 reduction debate, alternative building materials and green building certificates are desirable, but not essential.

Case Award description: 
Extensive discussion has been carried out with Miscanthus Nursery Limited and sister company Agrikinetics Ltd on the contents and program of the project. A draft SWOT analysis was discussed and market potentialities and limitations were evaluated. CASE partners are interested in developing high-value end-products using miscanthus fibres in order to widen their potential applications rather than using these only as fuel crop. CASE partners and University of Exeter are committed in expanding their collaboration on broader research topics.

The student will be exposed to a range of different activities (concrete technology, testing techniques, life cycle analysis) that will constitute on-the-job training, giving her/him a complete set of skills beneficial for her/his employability in the building industry or in research institutions. Training will cover also complementary skills development to enhance PhD student’s employability. A programme will be detailed at the beginning of the project with the supervision team and will constitute a specific part of the personal career development plan. Training will include aspects on funding opportunities, project management, research ethics and governance, communication, commercialisation and IP management.

Baxter, X.C., Darvell, L.I., Jones, J.M., Barraclough, T., Yates, N.E. and Shield, I., 2012. Study of Miscanthus x giganteus ash composition–Variation with agronomy and assessment method. Fuel, 95, pp.50-62.
Christian, S. and Billington, S., 2009. Sustainable biocomposites for construction. Composites and polycon, pp.15-17.
Heaton, E.A., Dohleman, F.G., Miguez, A.F., Juvik, J.A., Lozovaya, V., Widholm, J., Zabotina, O.A., McIsaac, G.F., David, M.B., Voigt, T.B. and Boersma, N.N., 2010. Miscanthus: a promising biomass crop. In Advances in botanical research (Vol. 56, pp. 75-137). Academic Press.
Klímek, P., Wimmer, R., Meinlschmidt, P. and Kúdela, J., 2018. Utilizing Miscanthus stalks as raw material for particleboards. Industrial Crops and Products, 111, pp.270-276.
Muthuraj, R., Misra, M., Defersha, F. and Mohanty, A.K., 2016. Influence of processing parameters on the impact strength of biocomposites: A statistical approach. Composites Part A: Applied Science and Manufacturing, 83, pp.120-129.
Pude, R., Treseler, C., Trettin, R. and Noga, G., 2005. Suitability of Miscanthus genotypes for lightweight concrete. BODENKULTUR-WIEN AND MUNCHEN-, 56(1/4), p.61.
Wanat, N., 2011. Potential adaptation of Miscanthus x giganteus for the phytoremediation of a former mine site highly contaminated (Doctoral dissertation, Université de Limoges).
Williams, J., Lawrence, M. and Walker, P., 2018. The influence of constituents on the properties of the bio-aggregate composite hemp-lime. Construction and Building Materials, 159, pp.9-17.

Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.  Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project

Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

•       CV
•       Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to
        undertake the project.
•       Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained. This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
•       If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.

You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is 23:59 BST on 9 July 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter in the following weeks.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor, Dr Raffaele Vinai

During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

• the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;

• administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:9th July 2018
Value:£14,553 per annum for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries