The Snuffelfiets: pedalling towards a better environment

There is only one means of transport more popular in the Netherlands than the car: our faithful steel steed with pedals. Together we cycle some 15 billion kilometers a year in The Netherlands. That’s more than 880 kilometres per person. If we are cycling these great distances, why not do something useful with all those trips? That’s what the inventors of the ‘Snuffelfiets’ (‘browsing cyclists’, ed.) must have been thinking.

The companies Civity and Sodaq set up the project together with the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the province of Utrecht. Civity specialises in data solutions and Sodaq is an expert in the field of sensors. Lastly, RIVM takes care of the validation of the data that is collected by the Snuffelfietsers.

And this data, well, that could be anything. “There are several sensors in the device, such as humidity and temperature sensors,” Claar Schouwenaar explains. Schouwenaar works for the province of Utrecht and is the project leader for the Snuffelfiets. “These sensors can tell us something about heat islands, for example.”

Heat island effect

A heat island effect is a phenomenon whereby the temperature in urban areas is relatively high compared to surrounding rural areas. “Measurements show that the city can be up to eight degrees warmer than the countryside”, meteorologist Gert-Jan Steenveld of Wageningen University recently explained in the university magazine Resource. “But even in a city this can vary considerably from one street to the next.” Measurements from the Snuffelfietsen could therefore identify local heat islands. These could be addressed with more vegetation, for instance.

But that’s not all. “An accelerometer and a vibration meter are also included. These collect data on road surface quality,” says Schouwenaar. “So if you hit potholes or tree roots, it detects that.” This could help municipalities and road authorities in future to analyze and maintain cycle paths and other roads used by bikes. “And last but not least, sensors that are used to measure air quality, of course.”

Units handed out to 500 Snuffelaars

Meanwhile ‘Snuffelaars’ (‘browsers’, ed.) are riding around in the municipalities of Zeist, Amersfoort, Utrecht, Nieuwegein and IJsselstein. “But North Holland, South Holland and Overijssel are also interested in the project,” says Schouwenaar. “And a pilot with 50 bicycles has just been launched in Gelderland too.”

Het meetkastje, bevestigd aan een van de Snuffelfietsen. Foto: Ronald van Liempdt

The remaining devices were distributed last month. There are 550 units in total, 500 in the province of Utrecht and 50 in Gelderland. The project started a year ago as a small pilot with 10 bicycles in Zeist. Pretty soon there was a lot of enthusiasm for expanding the project. ” We then said: we are going to scale that up to 500 participants,” Schouwenaar says. “Although we’ll spread it across the entire region.”

The ultimate goal is a two-fold one, according to Schouwenaar: “On the one hand, it’s an experiment to see what we can do with the collected data. You don’t want to immediately invest a lot of money into something that might not produce the best results. But at the same time you could say that it’s also an attempt to work towards the creation of big data, which does involve a lot of people who take measurements.” After all, the more Snuffelfietsen there are riding around, the more valuable the data becomes. “Because then you will be able to determine an average from it,” Schouwenaar states. And the more data input, the more accurate the output will be.

Cheap sensors, relevant data

Schouwenaar is therefore hoping that ultimately as many municipalities and provinces as possible will want to participate. “Anyone with their own specific question or method would also be fine,” she says. “It’s a way of demonstrating that very cheap sensors provide relevant data as well, as long as you have enough of them.”

The data platform developed by Civity makes it possible to monitor measurements from the project on a daily basis. Participants can also view their own measurement results via an app. The image below depicts the data from all Snuffelfietsen in the Utrecht area on November 20th. Aside from this grid map, all the specific routes of that day can also be viewed in detail.

Levels of fine particles

So it seems that there are a lot of fine particles in the air. However, there are often days when most of the routes on the map turned out to be relatively blue too. “Yes, that’s also disappointing for lots of participants”, Schouwenaar responds. “They thought: now I’m going to show you for once and all just how disgusting the air is in my neighbourhood”, she laughs. “But it’ s not so bad after all. That’s why it’s nice that the RIVM is on board with the project. They ‘clean’ the data by correcting any anomalies with the help of their measuring stations”, Schouwenaar explains. “The RIVM also says that levels of fine particles in The Netherlands are on the whole quite okay. Therefore you will see a lot of blue routes on a regular basis.”

Nevertheless, this data is also valuable. And in any case, there are plenty of ideas to further innovate the project in the future. “We want to continue developing the device. If you really want to be able to say something about air quality in our country, it should also include a nitrogen sensor.”

New Snuffelfietser groups

And it could be made even smaller, so that the new version could be used by new groups of Snuffelfietsers. “Imagine, for example, cyclists who cycle other routes with a smaller device or perhaps a unit that’s even fully integrated into the bike frame. Or all the bicycle couriers in The Netherlands start using them”, Schouwenaar suggests. “Or – and this is really a very relevant option – working with shared bicycles, such as the OV-fiets (rental bike from the Dutch public transport provider).”

And that calls for improvements to be made to the measurement equipment. ” At present, the unit is linked to the user, who also looks after it,” says Schouwenaar. “Where shared bikes are concerned, the device should be vandal-proof.” Nevertheless, that type of an upgrade would immediately lead to a huge increase in data, which makes it an appealing option. “At the moment we are also working with the OV-fiets to see if this is feasible,” Schouwenaar concludes enthusiastically.

Millions of Snuffelaars who constantly analyze and improve the quality of our home environment with each bike ride to work or to the supermarket. In a few years’ time, that might just become a reality.

Photos: Ronald van Liempdt

Interview: Electric buses are booming in Poland

Most people wouldn’t have guessed it, but there is no other European country where electric buses for public transport are as popular as they are in Poland. An important reason for this is that Poland is itself a large manufacturer of electric buses. It is estimated that about a third of all electric buses in Europe are manufactured in Poland.

Primus inter pares is bus and tramway manufacturer Solaris. Which is heading for a market share of about 20% on the European continent this year. Volvo, Scania, MAN and Rafako E-Bus also make electric buses in Poland.

Innovation Origins had an interview with the head of e-mobility development at Solaris, Mateusz Figaszewski:

Solaris is one of the biggest European electric bus producers. How many of these buses are going to the local Polish market?

The number of electric vehicles that Solaris delivers to Polish customers changes from year to year. Altogether, our company has delivered over 360 battery vehicles to customers in 18 European countries, including 119 in Poland.

Furthermore we have over 500 orders for our electric Urbino buses, of which 194 will be delivered to local Polish customers in 2019 and 2020.

Which Polish cities are using your E-buses and how many electric buses are there in Poland?

The cities in Poland where our battery vehicles can be found are: Inowrocław, Jaworzno, Kraków, Ostrołęka, Warszawa, Ostrów Wielkopolski, Września, Chodzież, Katowice, Sosnowiec, Stalowa Wola, Ciechanów, Rzeszów, Ostróda, Bełchatów, Łomianki. Other cities with vehicles on order are: Kutno, Miechów, Poznań, Radom, Tychy and Włocławek.

The E-bus market in Poland is comprised of 155 vehicles at the moment, 119 of them have been manufactured by Solaris. Another 254 units are on order, 194 of which are from Solaris.

Mateusz Figaszewski

What can we expect in the next few years where electrification of public transport is concerned?

The aim of the European Commission is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 by at least 60% before now and 2050. One of the ways to achieve this is to transform and electrify the European transportation sector, including urban public transport.

In line with that target, 50 European cities have already signed the “Clean Bus Deployment Initiative” – a declaration of intent on promoting large-scale deployment of clean, alternatively fueled buses. Many of these European cities have opted for electric buses.

The European electric bus fleet has already increased nearly 15-fold over the past 5 years. Still, we are convinced that we will see a further increase in the volume of orders. According to estimations from the ZeEUS program from UITP, 22% of all new bus registrations in 2020 will be electric and this number will continue to rise up to 45% by 2030.

The rest of the bus fleet will be at least partially electric driven or based for instance on hydrogen.

How important are European subsidies for the transition to environmentally friendly buses?

European and local subsidies from European Member States are crucial for maintaining the speed of market growth. Without them, many customers could face difficulties in securing budgets for the procurement of zero-emission vehicles. This is especially important nowadays as the technology is still relatively new. Therefore that makes it more expensive in the deployment phase than is the case for combustion vehicles.

Once we manage to achieve a scale-effect with higher order volumes, the prices for individual customers will also start to be more and more affordable.

Having said that, it should be pointed out that as a supplier we also see a growing interest in electric vehicles from private transport operators who are not subject to government subsidies. Running on electricity is cheaper than diesel.

What is Solaris’s market share in the European electric bus market?

The market share for Solaris in 2018 was 17%. This put our company in 2nd place in Europe with the United Kingdom included. However, if we take just the European mainland into account, last year we ended up as the market leader.

As 2019 is still underway, we are unable to give an exact number. We did however secure over 20% of orders placed for electric buses this year in Europe.

One problem in Poland is that electric buses need power and this power still largely comes from (dirty) coal. When do you think this will change?

First of all this is a question that should be addressed to policy makers. But as far we can see, all of the political parties in Poland, including the leading party, are aware of the need for decarbonization of different branches of industry, including the energy sector.

The pace at which this will be introduced is, however, very hard to estimate. As the country’s leading manufacturer of an ecological means of public transport, we strongly support any activities geared towards the transition to reusable sources of energy and making our energy sector more efficient and sustainable.

Poland is slowly saying goodbye to its reputation as the dirty man of Europe

This is the first part of a series about the measures that Poland is taking against environmental pollution and global warming. Tomorrow, part two will be devoted to the transition to electric buses in public transport.

The sight of the Belchatów brown coal power station is both forbidding and impressive. A huge hole several tens of meters deep and kilometers wide stretches out in front of the power station. The plant spits out thick clouds of smoke day and night. Everything in the hole is dead. Except for the gigantic trucks that are constantly driving back and forth between the quarry and the power station. The area around Belchatów is regularly shrouded in mist and the smell around the power station intensifies in winter thanks to the numerous households in the area that are still kept warm with old-fashioned multi-burners.

It should come as no surprise that the power station in Belchatów was regularly criticized at the climate summit in Katowice last year. Belchatów is the world’s largest brown coal power station. And it is the greatest, single emitter of carbon dioxide in the EU, with more than 38 million tonnes of CO2 per year. It is also one of the reasons why Poland is often called the dirty man of Europe.

The fact that Poland depends on coal and brown coal for almost 80% of its electricity is a thorn in the side of Brussels. Even worse, it is felt that Warsaw is also not prepared to abandon its dependence on coal. The furthest Poland has been willing to go so far, is to reduce its dependence on coal by roughly 50% by 2040. The government deems anything more than that to be too expensive. Poland therefore has declined to sign the EU protocol on the supply of CO2-neutral energy by 2050. Just as the Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary are also refusing.

The Netherlands emits more CO2 than Poland

This intractable attitude towards Brussels could give the impression that nothing at all is happening in Poland with regard to improving the environment. But that is not true. In a series devoted to environmental and climate measures, Innovation Origins will show that Poland is even ahead of the rest of Europe in some respects.

Read also: Coal Curtain replaces the Iron Curtain

For a start, the figures reveal that we, as The Netherlands, ought to be cautious in our criticism. Because of its high energy consumption per capita, The Netherlands emits more CO2 than Poland does. In 2017, Poland accounted for 319 million tonnes and the Netherlands for 175 million tonnes. In per capita terms, that amounted to 8.4 tonnes of CO2 per Polish person and more than 10 tonnes for one Dutch person. So the situation in Poland is not that dire after all.

When multi-burners are used during winter, nitrogen oxide emissions rise in Polish villages and towns, particularly in the south. Photo Maurits Kuypers

Also, the right-wing populist government PiS party seems to be realizing that doing nothing about climate policy is no longer an option either. For example, the government recently announced that with Michal Kurtyka, a special minister for climate issues has been appointed. While the conservative pro-coal minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski has since vanished from the cabinet.

And last week, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in Parliament: “Conventional energy sources will remain important for our energy system for a long time to come, but the situation is changing. There was a time when we couldn’t afford to invest in renewable energy sources. But now we can’t afford not to invest in them.”

Societal change

But the most important thing is that Polish society is changing. Nature and environmental policies are becoming increasingly important. The most noticeable change over the last few years was the increase in the number of protests against the extremely high levels of fine particles (smog) during winter months.

Last year, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated that 44,000 people in Poland die prematurely from poor air quality every year. Living in Warsaw for a year would be equivalent to smoking 1000 cigarettes. No wonder that the purchase of air masks was one of the biggest sales successes last year.

The response to this criticism is still a little slow at government level. The scheme to replace old multi-burners in houses with new ones is going rather sluggishly. Even though on paper as much as €25 billion has been made available for it.

Smog cities take steps towards banning multi-burners

The situation is different in municipalities and towns. In Krakow (long known as smog city number 1) multi-burners that emit too many fine particles and nitrogen oxide were banned this year. Other cities are also taking steps in this direction. Most experts therefore expect that the problem with the old polluting multi-burners – by far the most important cause of fine particles – should be solved in the not too distant future.

Another reason for optimism about air quality is the rapid deployment of electric buses. According to Solaris Bus & Coach (a local manufacturer of buses and trams from Bolechowo, a suburb in Poznan), there are already 16 cities with battery-operated buses. This is a win-win situation for Poland, as most of the E-buses come from their home country. In addition to Solaris, electric buses are also being manufactured in Poland by Volvo, Scania, MAN and Rafako E-Bus.

The Solaris factory, Photo Maurits Kuypers

Companies for a cleaner environment

Companies aren’t just standing still either. Press agency Reuters reported this month that 20 major companies have signed up to the EU targets for CO2 neutrality by 2050. In defiance of the Warsaw government. Among them are the PKN Orlen refinery and PKO Bank Polski, both state-owned. The Polish subsidiary of the ING Bank has also signed. As have subsidiaries of the French company Orange (telecom) and the German company Innogy (chemistry).

“Of course, we will not achieve the goal of climate neutrality overnight. However, it is important that we take immediate action,” says the Charter of the 20 companies. Deputy Director of ING Bank Śląski Joanna Erdman told Reuters that signing this document is a very natural step for the bank. ING was also one of the first lenders who refused to continue financing new coal projects.

Erdman: “At the moment, the discussion in Poland revolves around whether we ought to endorse the CO2 targets. When it should actually be about how we want to achieve that.”

As I said, this message from companies is slowly but surely beginning to resonate with the government in Warsaw. For instance, after parliamentary elections in October, the energy plan for 2040 has been partially amended in favor of the environment. For one thing, according to the old plans, all onshore windmills were supposed to disappear. That’s because they were considered too unsightly. Now the aim is to keep capacity at about the same level.

Onshore windmills are not very popular in Poland. Photo Expresselblag/Pixabay

Gigawatts on the rise

Warsaw wants to make a decisive leap forward as far as solar energy is concerned. This year, the 1 gigawatt threshold will be exceeded for the first time. A further 15 gigawatts will be needed over the coming 20 years. The VAT on solar panels has been reduced. And an incentive fund of € 235 million has been set up for private individuals as well.

The government foresees slightly slower development when it comes to offshore wind energy. Poland prefers to wait until this technology becomes cheaper before investing heavily in it. Expectations are that this will happen after 2025.

Lastly, Prime Minister Morawiecki sees an important role for “clean” nuclear energy as an alternative to coal. Poland is one of the few countries in Eastern Europe that does not yet have a nuclear power station. That will nevertheless have to change by 2033. Warsaw states that nuclear reactors are an important alternative to coal-fired power stations. This is because they are ‘adaptable’. Which basically means that they can be cranked up at night when the wind isn’t blowing. Or in winter when there is hardly any sun. That will ensure that there is never a shortage of electricity.

Independence from Russia

There is something that plays a role in the background to all these plans for 2040. And that’s the desire to become independent of energy from arch enemy Russia as soon as possible. Alongside nuclear energy, the import of liquid natural gas (LNG) serves as an alternative to Russian coal and gas.

The electricity plan for 2020 and 2040 currently looks like this:

The electricity plan for 2020 and 204020202040
Brown coal8,6 gigawatt3,4 gigawatt
Coal15,6 gigawatt7,6 gigawatt
Gas and cogeneration2,4 gigawatt12,4 gigawatt
Onshore windmills9,5 gigawatt9,8 gigawatt
Offshore windmills08 gigawatt
Solar panels1,3 gigawatt16 gigawatt
Nuclear energy04 gigawatt

 

EU wants €20 billion extra for the Horizon innovation fund, but will it happen?

The European Union is entering a new phase with the inauguration of the new European Commission, which was approved by the European Parliament yesterday after a long series of personal interviews. The new President, Ursula von der Leyen, has set a clear course for her commissioners. This is primarily aimed at making Europe climate-neutral. The other major pillar of its intended policy is to increase the competitiveness of the European Union.

President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission has set out a strict policy framework.

The key question, of course, is how she and her fellow commissioners want to achieve these objectives. In the main, that means: research into better production methods and innovating the existing ones. Consequently, funding is needed for this.

Dire necessity

Innovation and its investment is a dire necessity, according to the new European governance. In the first place, because the European Union must be completely CO2-neutral by 2050. This means that we will have to live, drive, fly and produce in a CO2 neutral way. So that’s quite a challenge. Secondly, because competing superpowers such as the US (2.8%), South Korea (4.2%) and Japan (3.3%) invest a much higher percentage of their GDP in innovation than the EU does. (2.1% while the target is set at a minimum of 3%). These countries subsequently also score better when it comes to innovating their businesses. Because of this, the EU is lagging behind them, so says Bulgarian Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, She is in charge of the innovation budget for the upcoming period.

As her predecessor Carlos Moedas had already announced last year, Gabriel wants to increase the budget of the research and innovation fund Horizon Europe from almost €100 billion to €120 billion. This amount is to be spread over the 2021 to 2027 budget period. This money should go towards basic research in universities as well as innovation by large companies, start-ups and SMEs.

Not a piece of cake

Which is a noble ambition that no member state should actually be opposed to. You’d think that it was a piece of cake. But it’s not. Life is complicated within the offices of the European institutions. They have to constantly do business with the governments of the 28 – and, if there is a Brexit, 27 – member states. Then those governments have to deal with their constituents in the cities and rural areas of their country. And the constituencies (especially those in the poorer EU regions) may threaten the innovation plans of this new European Commission.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, wants more money for the Horizon Fund

The major battle is being waged via discussions by the heads of state or governments concerning the European Union’s long-term budget. This is something which they will have to hammer out in 2020. Von der Leyen wants more money from the member states to be able to implement her ambitious policy program. But the member states do not want to pay the EU a higher percentage of their GNP, says spokesman Roy Kenkel of The Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (PV) in Brussels. (As an example, the European Commission wants The Netherlands to contribute 1.11% of their GNP).

“The Netherlands is in favor of a larger innovation budget. We think that’s an excellent idea! But we also believe that this money could come from the resources that the European Commission has at its disposal if we were to continue to contribute the same percentage as we do now. Our GNP is on the rise, so our contribution will in any event deliver more money to the EU with the current, unchanged percentage of our GNP.”

Not mentioned in the budget

It makes more sense for the EU to restructure its budget and adapt it to the demands of our time, says Kenkel. That is what Von der Leyen also said in her speech yesterday. In Von der Leyen’s opinion, the MFF (otherwise known as the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework) should not be seen as a simple calculation of expenditure, but rather as a policy instrument that will modernize the European Union’s budget.

That might be the case, except up until now the problem has been that you cannot discern this in the document that the European Commission sent to the member states last May and which the member states are currently negotiating. It does not say, for example, that the Horizon Innovation Fund should be increased by €20 billion. Whereas the new European Commission does want to use this extra money to tie into specific industrial policy. Something that is new for the European Union, as the French EU Commissioner for the Internal Market and Industry, Thierry Breton, said to the European Parliament during his hearing last month.

European Commissioner Thierry Breton wants to tie industrial policy to innovation paid for with Horizon money.

Other expenditure areas

One way in which the extra €20 billion could still be included in the budget is for the European Commission to submit a separate additional proposal to the member states. That’s what Kenkel from the PV in Brussels says. Nevertheless, he thinks that this isn’t very likely as this is a cumbersome process and the negotiations are already underway. He believes that it would be more logical to discuss the matter during ongoing negotiations.

Then there is also the question of how important the member states regard the growth of the innovation fund compared to that of other expenditure. Such as for the common agricultural policy and the cohesion fund. Funding for the development of poor regions must be paid from this. The European Commission actually wants to cut 5% off both of these expenditure areas. And that is definitely something that the countries that benefit most from these funds do not want to happen.

Read also: Aviation industry to European Commission: ‘money is needed to develop zero-emission aircraft’

€88 billion on offer

The signs are not very favorable in this respect, says Guillaume Gillet, He is the director of InnoEnergy in Brussels, an investment company that invests money from private investors and the Horizon Fund in promising, innovative start-ups in the energy field. “It is said that the Finnish chairmanship wants to reduce the budget for Horizon to €88 billion. It will only be possible to raise it to €120 billion if the European Parliament fights very hard for that.”

The question is how bad would that be? After all, European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has already announced that part of the funds for cohesion and agriculture can be used for innovation in the agricultural sector and for the development of rural areas. The intention is that these funds will thereby contribute to making Europe environmentally sustainable.

Read also: European Commissioner Timmermans wants CO2 tax at the EU’s outer border

The difference with financing innovation via these funds, however, is that the funds are distributed by the governments of the member states. Who in turn allocate these to their national constituencies. It now remains to be seen as to what extent this will benefit both European cooperation and European coordination in terms of industrial policy.

Not enough money for scale-ups

According to investor Gillet, the European Commission is also investing directly via Horizon in innovative start-ups who would otherwise be unable to raise money as their profitability is uncertain. That’s going well for now. Although a larger Horizon Fund would make this support more robust, Gillet states. So far, the problem has been that there is not enough money to invest in the further growth of start-ups. This makes it difficult for them to become fully-fledged companies that are able to grow and flourish in Europe. It is precisely these scale-ups that provide employment as well as develop knowledge and bring prosperity. “American and Asian investors are investing money in them. That’s because of their more aggressive culture when it comes to high-risk capital investment. Consequently, Europe is losing a number of successful start-ups.”

Read also: ‘Europe must invest in a hub for collaborative robots in SMEs’

Whereas these are in fact what you would prefer to hold on to. Which is also what Von der Leyen said in her speech yesterday. Whether she will be successful in this respect over the coming period will become clear when the new MFF is mapped out next year.

Start-up of the day: Energy Floors is making smart parking spaces in Rotterdam

Over the coming year, Rotterdam’s Energy Floors wants to sell smart surfaces for public outdoor spaces that generate data, measuring how many cars, pedestrians and cyclists are passing by. These can be used to regulate traffic flows and lighting, for instance. These Smart Energy Floors also generate energy via the solar cells that are integrated in them. At the moment, the Rotterdam municipality is on the lookout for a suitable location for the application of this kind of energy surface in a city parking lot, says Michel Smit, CEO of Energy Floors. A trial of this is planned for 2020 in cooperation with the Engie energy company.

What motivated you to set up Energy Floors and what problem has this resolved?

“Our first idea was to create a Sustainable Dance Floor on which people can dance to generate energy, something that you can actually see because the tiles light up. (By converting the vertical movement of the dancer on the floor into rotational movement through a mechanism underneath the flexible floor tiles so as to generate energy, ed.) That idea originally came from two companies: Enviu and Döll. In 2017, they brought me in as a hands-on expert from the club scene. I had been running a large nightclub in Rotterdam for four years, called Off-Corso. They wanted to bring sustainability to the attention of young people and thought that the Sustainable Dance Floor could help with that.

Unlike today, it was difficult to get young people interested in sustainable energy at that time. It had a bit of a stuffy image. We initially tried out that first version of that dance floor at the Rotterdam pop stage Watt (which went bankrupt in 2010, ed.) – that made it the first sustainable club in the world. We started building our business around that first Sustainable Dance Floor.”

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

“That we had customers for the Sustainable Dance Floor before we had the actual product. At first, we only had a drawing of the floor, an artist’s impression. We worked out the concept and technology with TU Delft and TU/e in Eindhoven. And together with Daan Roosegaarde, we were able to further develop the interaction between the public and the technology. This is where our Sustainable Dance Floor is unique: the interaction between people and sustainably-generated energy. When they dance harder, they generate more energy.

This is what we want to offer people when it comes to our business proposition. That they themselves have an influence on improving the sustainability of energy. We want commitment. This is what we are specifically focusing on. The second obstacle was how we could go about expanding the scale for things that this product can be used for. So that it has a real impact. That’s why we wanted a surface that was suitable for large permanent fixtures in outdoor areas. We had to drop our initial unique selling point – as in ‘human energy’ – for this type of surface. Instead, we came up with our Smart Energy Floor. We use solar energy rather than kinetic energy. Otherwise, the project would be impossible to complete. The system has to be cost-effective, robust and resistant to wear and tear.”

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“That we sold 25 of those Smart Energy Floors to schools last year. Three of them in Germany and the rest in The Netherlands. As a company, we have three business propositions: the Dancer for clubs and discotheques, for example, the Gamer for schoolyards and the Walker for large outdoor facilities. The first Walker in the Netherlands is located near Croeselaan in Utrecht on a crossing opposite Rabobank’s head office. Rabo has partly financed this floor. There is also one in the palace garden of the President of Malta. He found us via Google. It is a public garden with a Gamer and a Walker. A Gamer costs 13,000 euros including the installation. While a Walker is available from 25,000 euros.

The fact that we appeal to people all over the world doesn’t surprise us at all. Our first signed contract was with the producer of Absolute Vodka. He wanted to make a road show around New York with our dance floor in 2009. So, that’s what we did. We get two to three requests a day. Our challenge is to be able to deal with these properly. Because we want to keep on innovating too. As an example, you could also use the Smart Energy Floor on motorways if you developed the software for that.”

 What can we expect from Energy Floors over the coming year?

“We want to start selling more Walkers. This is a new market for us that has a lot of potential. Smart city projects that you can use it in are much larger projects than what we have done so far. You could equip bike paths with our technology so that you can turn them into walkways. We are going to do a smart parking trial next year together with Engie and the municipality of Rotterdam. We will be installing  a Walker for that reason. The energy generated by the solar cells in the surface goes to the electricity grid and can subsequently be used to charge cars. Currently, we’re looking around for a suitable location.

We are also planning to enter the German market. This fits in well with our product and company. There is plenty of capital there and focus on sustainability. And the German way of doing business isn’t that different from the Dutch way of doing business.”

What is your ultimate goal?

“Ultimately, we want our Smart Energy Floors to be used in all the world’ s major cities and have their data connected to each other. You can learn a lot from each other’s experiences. You could monitor and influence the behaviour of the users of our surfaces on city roads. For example, in order to regulate busy situations at certain locations. You can apply the technology in a smart way. If there are very few people driving or walking on the road, you could turn the lights off in the evening.”

Bendable glass that is harder than steel

It’s a godsend for anyone who has a habit of putting their smartphone in the back pocket of their pants. Because plenty of glass screens break that way. It is possible, however, to manufacture glass that is bendable and even stronger than steel. You just have to use slightly different ingredients during the production process. A bendable glass that can bend at room temperature has been developed by an international research team.

“Conventional glass is brittle and easily shatters under pressure. We discovered a way to manufacture glass that exhibits ductile behavior. In other words, our glass is tougher than conventional glass.” says Dr. Erkka Frankberg, Marie Curie Fellow at the Finnish University of Tampere. He was in charge of the research team. Instead of using the customary silicon oxide, the research team used aluminium oxide. As a consequence, this new kind of glass acquired metallic properties. “Silicon oxide was already know to be brittle. We were looking for oxides that could behave differently. There were some studies on glassy aluminum oxide suggesting more plasticity compared to glassy silicon oxide and we took the chance to study it,” says the scientist.

The team first had to overcome a certain obstacle in order to actually be able to make a glass-like substance with aluminum oxide. They used an advanced laser technique for that. “It is exceedingly difficult to convert aluminum oxide into a glassy substance. The traditional glass manufacturing processes cannot be applied to aluminum oxide because it easily transforms into the crystalline form. The solution is to cool the material down extremely fast from a high temperature to prevent crystallization.”

© Erkka Frankberg

Surprising degree of plasticity

As a result of this process, an amorphous structure of aluminum and oxygen atoms was created, which formed a new, metallic glass. It turned out to be bendable and elastic during various tests, even at point load. “The extent of plasticity was still a surprise to us,” Frankberg admits.

The researchers made thin sheets out of their glass for these mechanical stress tests. Because even though it has metallic properties owing to the use of aluminium oxide, it is still glass. “We stretched and compressed samples of our material. By carrying out combined compression and shear tests, we were able to demonstrate that the material is also capable of adjusting to a shear force,” Frankberg explains.

The silicon oxide glass is relatively easy to break because the atoms in the glass are unable to move under pressure. If you bend glass too much or try to stretch it, it breaks. In this new type of glass, atoms are able to move. That means that it takes longer for the breakpoint to be reached.

You can find more articles about glass here

Is this glass really unbreakable, or is there also a point when it shatters to pieces? “Well, yes and no,” Frankberg says. “In a brittle material, stress will steadily build up until it fractures. If the atoms, however, begin to move before the fracture stress is reached, the stress will no longer increase but levels off to a yield stress, creating a continuous phenomenon.” This means that at that yield stress level, the atoms would have sufficient mechanical energy for them to be able to move. They no longer need any additional energy and therefore the stress levels can’t be increased, but instead settle into a relatively constant state of stress.

© Jonne Renvall & Erkka Frankberg

New applications for glass

Up until now, applications for glass have been limited on account of its fragility. Yet this research could be instrumental in finding new applications. “You might be able to smash your phone on the floor without breaking the screen. Our current smartphone screens are basically regular window glass with enhanced elasticity and strength. But they are still ultimately made out of glass that exhibits no plastic behavior,” Frankberg emphasizes.

The new glass is also harder than steel. The fact that glass is also much lighter than steel means that Frankberg sees all kinds of potential for applications. Of course, as safety glass in vehicles. But probably in the aerospace industry as well, or for building machines. “In the future yes, if we are able to produce sufficiently flaw-free glass in adequate quantities. It is difficult to predict all possible applications as glass was not known before to behave in this manner.”

She refutes the objection that the new glass may be damaging to health because of its use of alumina. “To the best of my best knowledge, there are no results indicating carcinogenicity of aluminum oxide. Aluminum oxide is a compound of aluminum and oxygen with very different properties to metallic aluminum. Aluminium oxide is present everywhere in the earth’s crust and all around us from household ceramics to materials used in construction.”

Manufacture of glass without defects is a prerequisite when it comes to pliability. Irregularities such as cracks, bubbles or dirt can lead to breakages. This is the next challenge for the scientists. Frankenberg: “Both aluminum and oxygen are abundant on Earth, but we require an unconventional manufacturing process to achieve the desired properties. The produced glass also needs to be sufficiently pure and flawless which presents a further challenge.”

© Erkka Frankberg

Mass production will still take decades

It most likely will still take decades before any production takes place on an industrial scale, he says, because research needs time. “Typical to new materials technology, the scaling of manufacturing takes a long time. It will most likely take 2-3 decades, but of course, can be hastened if breakthroughs are made in the manufacturing technology. But if a material is really useful for humanity, it will eventually end up being used for thousands of years – like glass,” he adds.

The research project was funded via grants from Finland, France, Italy, and the European Union as part of the Horizon 2020 research program. Research is still at an early stage though. The results of this initial study were published in the renowned Science Magazine.

Start-up of the Day: Vienna Textile Lab dyes fabrics with bacteria

Bakterien, Textilfarben, Vienna Textile Lab

“Bacteria are the most intelligent, environmentally friendly and resource-efficient way to produce textile dyes,” says Karin Fleck, founder of Vienna Textile Lab. “Bacteria occur in nature, can be stored as a strain in laboratories and propagated at any time. They synthesize colors in a natural way”.

Karin studied technical chemistry at TU Wien in Austria. For many years she had various managerial positions at several energy companies such as Vattenfall Energy Trading in The Netherlands and in Germany. When she met Cecilia Raspanti (who had founded the company Textile Lab Amsterdam), she became inspired to use bacteria to make textile dyes. Cecilia had already tried this herself, but without much success. “It is not so much about the challenge of using bacteria as a raw material. More than anything, you actually need a lot of know-how and understanding of scientific methods. You then also have to go about it very carefully. There could potentially be germs among them,” Karin explains.

She had already been working with dyes when she was graduating. But the whole sector was new to her in principle. That’s why she sought support via:

  • Fritsch, a textile dye company in Vienna, which specializes in environmentally friendly dyes;
  • Erich Schopf, a bacteriographer from Vienna, who makes paintings using bacteria;
  • the Institute of Applied Synthesis Chemistry at TU Wien.

Microorganisms tend to produce microbial dyes in response to altered growth conditions. They protect cells from external influences such as salt or temperature stress, light or intense competition. These substances often also have an anti-bacterial effect. Bacteria-based textile dyes have the same properties as conventional synthetic dyes when used on a daily basis.

Karin Fleck elaborates further:

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab
Karin Fleck, Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

What solution does this bacterial-based textile dye offer and why is that important?

It is an alternative to synthetic dyes, which to a large degree have a detrimental effect on health and the environment. But also particularly for people in the textile industry who are constantly in contact with these dyes. Furthermore, everyone wears clothes and is therefore exposed to the chemicals that they contain. These dyes are currently under critical examination throughout the world. The EU has guidelines on synthetic dyes too. Dyes are banned on a regular basis or their use is restricted. This creates more room for new, innovative dyes. But especially for new production systems which do not rely on crude oil.

What has been the biggest obstacle that had to be overcome?

Our limited ability to hire people. The Austrian labor market is geared towards permanent jobs and employee security. Yet the world of start-ups is unpredictable. Above all, people are needed on a project basis in order to be able to cope with any peaks. You need to be able to react flexibly to the circumstances when you’re a young company who has growth spurts.

What has been a high point so far? What are you particularly proud of?

There have been many wonderful moments. Such as winning prizes. When we first started out, we already won 3rd place at the Climate Launchpad. This year we won the BOKU Start-up Prize from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. All the invitations we’ve received have also been very encouraging. For example, for the TEDxCanggu in Bali or for a pitch at CLIX , part of the 2018 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

It’s also great to see how people, customers and organizations from all over the world know how to find us. We talk to people from the US, Indonesia, Sweden, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany and so on. For instance, I came in contact with Material Connexion in New York. This is a collection of some of the most diverse, innovative materials for industry, local tradespeople, artists and designers. Samples from Vienna Textile Lab have now also been included in their collection.

We derive the most pleasure from everyone who supports us. People who let us know that they appreciate how good our bacteria-based textile dyes are. The experts who really help us out when we can’t figure something out right at that moment. But also local organizations that believe in our success. These include the Vienna Impact Hub or the TCBL, Textile clothing and business labs.

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab,
Bacteria are applied directly onto the fabric, where they multiply and develop a pattern. Karin Fleck, Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

How is everything going at the Vienna branch?

Fine. We can have confidence in the structures and systems. We have had many rewarding and supportive experiences involving funding agencies and universities. There are people here who are promoting us, even when they don’t know us personally. I can’t judge whether things are any better anywhere else. But I know that there is more money available for the biotech sector in Germany and the US.

Where will the start-up be in five years’ time?

By then we will have elevated our manufacturing method to an industrial level. We will have a customer base that will facilitate further growth, and perhaps we’ll be expanding on a global scale.

What distinguishes Vienna Textile Lab from similar companies?

We have opted for solid partners. This in turn makes us stronger and more competent. Aside from that, we want to remain transparent and have discussions with all potential customers or partners. Not only with large corporations, but also with niche companies, artists and designers. That may well make it more complicated, but that makes it all the better as well. We learn a lot through this kind of interaction and are therefore able to position and develop our products much more effectively. Last but not least, we have an extremely wide variety of our most important employees: bacteria.

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab
Bacteria are capable of producing a large proportion of the colors in the color palette. Nevertheless, some colors are problematic and need to be mixed. Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

Read more articles about start-ups here.

 

 

Start-up of the Day: only f**king perfect vegetables are good enough for the best restaurants

Ard van de Kreeke (52) from Middelburg became an organic farmer ten years ago. Prior to that, he had owned all kinds of companies in the sustainable quarter. But since he had bought a farm as a house with plenty of land and was kind of done with traveling all over the world, he thought: “I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m going to be a farmer.” As of this year, he owns GrowX vertical farming, a company that grows micro vegetables and supplies top restaurants in Amsterdam. He told Innovation Origins about what drives him.

What motivated you to set up GrowX?

I didn’t set it up, that happened back in 2016 thanks to John Apesos, a Dutch American from Amsterdam. However, the company turned out not to be viable, due to the high cost price of the products and the poor market. Apesos had hoped to produce for the general public, but the product is not yet suitable for that.

What is your product?

We grow mini vegetables in racks, using LED light and in cellulose instead of soil. Without any pesticides – just light, seed and water. For example, we grow wasabi mustard leaves, three different colored radishes and five types of basil. Our range now includes 50 varieties for the hospitality industry, chiefly the higher-end restaurants. I already had leading chef Sergio Herman as a customer at my organic farm and that’ s a great way in for other top restaurants. I deliver to Le Ciel Blue in the Okura hotel and La Rive restaurant in the Amstel Hotel. They use our mini vegetables to enrich their dishes.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

I had to shift the company’s culture from high-tech to regular farming. Technology is the means and not the end.

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

The biggest breakthrough was when the best restaurants started appreciating our produce. When it comes to vegetables grown in greenhouses, it’s a bit like: how can that taste so good? The opposite is true. You get a more concentrated taste. You can even influence taste by changing the color of the light. My customers – and they are really super-critical – absolutely love it. We didn’t do any marketing; word of mouth did the job. A number of chefs, like the Zeeland folk in Amsterdam, told their colleagues: you have to taste this, I have something pretty special. This year’s produce is already sold out.

What can we expect from GrowX over the coming year?

We have demonstrated that the product actually works. The only thing is that the production unit isn’t working as we would like it to be. This is due to personnel and energy costs and investment in technology. I want to robotize a large part of the production, so that a robot can water and weigh the plants from now on. That saves 25 % in costs.”

Where do you want to be with GrowX within five years from now?

In principle, I would like to have 25 of these units in place all over the world. In cities, close to the end user. You chop the vegetables and they reach the customer a few minutes later. I hope that by then we will not only have a product for the high-end user, but also for the mainstream consumer.

What does GrowX’s innovation improve upon compared to other products in your segment of the market?

There is already something like this, but it is so expensive, I’m already now more than 50 % cheaper than that. I can handle that side of things much better, thanks to robots and AI in the main. I’ m never satisfied, but it’s still not quite where I want it to be yet. I currently have 5 switches that I can turn, that should be 20. The major advantage is that I understand how a great chef thinks. Sergio Herman once said to me: everything has to be fucking perfect. We won’t do it for any less than that.

 

Start-up of the week: a Dutch solution for a Dutch problem

”Your sneak preview of the future” is the slogan of Innovation Origins, and that’s just what we will highlight with our Start-up of the Week column. Over the past few days, five start-ups of the day have been featured and on Saturday we will choose the week’s winner.

Innovation Origins presents a Start-up of the Day each weekday

We shall consider various issues such as sustainability, developmental phase, practical application, simplicity, originality and to what extent they are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of UNESCO. They will all pass by here and at the end of the week, the Start-Up of the Week will be announced.

EP Tender: a powerbank on wheels

It’s a strange sight, but the battery trailer from the French start-up EP Tender is definitely a very serious plan. You can regard the vehicle as a kind of extra battery for electric cars. This increases the range of the electric car by a maximum of 150 kilometers. Useful for holidays abroad where there are less charging stations than in The Netherlands. For the start-up it is to be hoped that battery nanotechnology is not set to overtake this wee trailer in the next decade.

Credimi – Fast financing for start-ups

Often an ambitious innovative business model needs money. Money that those involved don’t always have in their own pockets. Of course, you could go to a bank to finance your project, yet that frequently takes up an incredible amount of time. What makes Italian Credimi different from other lenders is that they are very fast. An applicant knows within 48 hours whether or not they will receive the loan. And this can be very welcome if you need to act quickly in a volatile market.

Skinive – Pocket-sized dermatologist

Almost everyone has discovered something on their skin that they were a little concerned about. A birthmark you didn’t know existed. Or a type of rash, an innocent spot. Or perhaps it would be a good idea to see your family doctor after all? By using the app from the Belarus start-up Skinive, you can find out directly by pointing your phone’s camera at your skin and taking a few pictures. The app then matches the images with data from a database that contains a multitude of nightmares for hypochondriacs.

The project initially began with the aim of discovering the first stages of skin cancer.However, the founders soon figured out that their smart app also worked for many other conditions. And because the app works on any smartphone, skin research is more accessible than ever. Skinive just offers advice on dermatological conditions, but unfortunately it doesn’t help against hypochondria.

Hydrogenious – All hail hydrogen

That hydrogen has the potential to be used as a fuel has been known for some time now. And how nice it would be if this would also be possible to roll it out en masse. Hydrogen is not a greenhouse gas. It produces about three times more energy than the same amount of petrol and there is more than enough of it on earth. So much for the advantages. Hydrogen is quite flammable at room temperature. Something that is obviously not very practical when you want to travel by car. In addition, the gas has the lowest density of the entire periodic table of elements, which makes it extremely difficult to work with. The gas evaporates just like that.

The German team behind Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies wants to address and overcome these two disadvantages with an innovative bit of chemistry. The ambitious start-up devised a process whereby hydrogen can be stored without any risk of explosion. And that’s not all. They have also discovered a way in which the gas can be transported to the end user with a tanker or a pipeline. How great would it be if we no longer needed to reduce the use of environmentally hazardous fuels, but simply had a clean alternative that we could burn which never runs out?

Fieldfactors – Avoid wet feet with green fields

Climate change is likely to have serious consequences for the Netherlands. Due to the fact that half of the country is actually below sea level, the risk of flooding is constantly looming over our tiny hinterland. And this is not the sole threat. Heavy rainfall will be more frequent as a result of a warmer kind of climate. Excess rainwater has to go somewhere if you don’t want the streets to be flooded. This is especially a problem in built-up areas. It can be very difficult to get rid of water when everything is packed in tight. However, the Dutch wouldn’t be Dutch if they didn’t have an innovative solution for this. One of these is Bluebloqs, a system from the start-up Fieldfactors, whereby 95% of rainwater can be stored underground in a basin.

This storage technology not only keeps our feet dry, it also looks pretty green. The system is visible at street level in the form of a plant bed. This naturally enhances the appeal of the street scenes. A win-win situation. An underground system is currently being installed in Rotterdam and is also dealing with a third sore point. Climate change does not limit itself to heavier rainfall, but also to longer periods of drought. Thanks to the compact storage basin, rainwater can be stored for months and reused at any time.

The biggest job these ex-students from Delft University have done so far was to install a storm water drain near the Kasteel football stadium, the home of Sparta. The football field is being watered in a sustainable manner through this basin. The square in front of the station has become a lot greener. And the local residents are no longer inconvenienced by flooding.

That the Dutch are internationally known as experts in the field of water management has once again been by Fieldfactors. The initiators show that innovation does not necessarily have to involve high-tech gadgets. One can also look towards nature too. In fact, everyone benefits from this system at a time when a well thought-out irrigation policy is more important than ever. This is enough reason for us to reward Fieldfactors this week with the title of Start-up of the Week!

Best read: Professor says – ‘Don’t panic about the rise in sea levels’

Soaking wet feet through flooded streets. We are increasingly faced with heavy rains or periods of drought as a result of climate change. The municipality of Eindhoven is taking all kinds of measures to mitigate flooding. Last week’s best-read article featured a measurement tool developed by the municipality to figure out how much water building constructors need to divert from new buildings in order to reduce the risk of flooding. The municipality of Eindhoven is also addressing problem areas with new water storage systems aimed at reducing the disruption caused by heavy downpours.

Great, all these measures, but they won’t help you if The Netherlands floods. There is the idea among some sea-level experts that unstable ice sheets cause the sea level to rise faster than is presently thought to be the case. But according to Bas Jonk, professor of hydraulic engineering at Delft University of Technology, at the moment we will be able to technically cope with a rise in sea level of 1 to 2 meters. “It is expected that the water will rise by 20 to 30 centimeters by 2050. This is not a problem right now. We could raise dikes and replace storm surge barriers as the water rises.”

According to the professor, the Netherlands has things pretty much under control when it comes to flood protection: “Many flood barriers have been designed with an increase of 1 meter in mind. Every year, the government invests around 1 billion euros in flood protection. Which is something we can maintain and that’s a good thing. Compare it with other countries – there are plenty of areas in the United States that are not yet well-protected so they still have a long way to go. Thought is being given to constructing dikes or taking other measures over there now.”

Not acting is not an option

He gets that the Dutch are worried. However, there is no need for panic. “60 % of The Netherlands is low-lying and vulnerable to flooding. This can have many consequences. So yes, that concern is justified. But you should put it in perspective. Between now and 2050, the sea level will rise by a maximum of 30 centimeters, only after that will it rise faster. The threshold of 2.5 to 5 meters will probably not be reached until the 22nd century. This means that we still have ample time to see what can be done technically. Nor would it be a bad idea at all to raise that budget by 2050 from 1 billion to 2, maybe even 3 billion euros a year.”

The Maeslandkering storm surge barrier near Rotterdam is designed to close about twice a year. If the sea level rises above 1 meter, this barrier would then have to close every day. This is far from ideal because ships will no longer be able to sail freely. And the Oosterscheldekering storm surge barrier will also have to close every week if the sea level rises that much. This in turn will have negative repercussions on the wildlife environs.

Dams, dikes and drainage

“That’s why it’s good to think about alternatives now. Start by figuring out and planning what is needed to replace these barriers. What happens to the area if you build a permanent dam? Perhaps a new flood barrier would be a better idea. This involves a lot of work and the implications are considerable. These are expensive projects that have an impact on the environment and the economy. Planning and all the procedures surrounding these projects take up a lot of time. This is where the biggest challenge lies for the time being,” Jonkman explains.

In Jonkman’s opinion, we are more likely to be affected by other climate factors, such as heavy rainfall and temperature hikes accompanied by drought. “Recently a report was published by Deltares (a Dutch research institute) on this and their conclusion is that rising sea levels have not accelerated. Even though we are already suffering from drier summers. e.g. rivers are becoming less navigable as a result of low levels. Drought is endangering constructions built on piles and dikes. And in cities there is heat stress to contend with. In some places, drainage of water after heavy rainfall is also a problem.”

Advancing innovation, also outside of The Netherlands

Not only the Netherlands suffers from heat stress, drought or heavy rains. This is why various partners from fifteen different countries within the European Union are working on local solutions to climate-related problems. Brigaid helps entrepreneurs and inventors to flesh out their ideas. Bas Jonkman is also busy with this on behalf of TU Delft. “Often you see that innovations are difficult to get off the ground. Not much is put into practice. We want to support innovators in advancing their innovations through this project,” the professor explains.

The EU project runs until April 2020 and so far, Jonkman has already seen solutions from twenty different European countries. From a smart green roof in Antwerp that retains water during heavy rainfall and releases it during drought, to solutions for water basins in Spain where the water evaporates at high temperatures. “In Romania there is a test facility where you can test a smarter alternative to sandbags. And you are able to simulate all kinds of situations with temporary flood barriers here in Delft.”

“Furthermore, project participants receive advice with regard to the technical side and help with building a business case. Another objective is to boost education and research. Students who are doing an internship or are in the process of graduating are able to participate in various projects. You bring each other further this way.”

Research shows that carbon in the world’s oceans needs to be recalculated

Godfather of evolutionary theory and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) already assumed that there had to be something even smaller than the protozoa that were visible under the microscope in the “clear blue water” of the ocean. And he was right. Today we know that “every liter of ocean water is teeming with hundreds of millions of microorganisms,” as marine biologist Rudolf Amann says. He is director of the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology in Bremen.

Amann and his colleagues have conducted extensive research into the importance of these microorganisms for the metabolic processes in oceans. This has produced some surprising results. This metabolic cycle is different than previously considered.

Metabolism, biomass and the world’s oceans

“Although they are only micrometers in size, the amount and the high metabolic rate of [microorganisms] determine the energy flows and the conversion of biomass in oceans,” states Tobias Erb. He’s a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. The scientists explain that they have discovered a metabolism method that “plays an important role in the microbial degradation of algae biomass in the ocean.” For future calculations of the carbon dioxide balance of the world’s oceans, it is particularly important to know how the exact processes take place at a molecular level. At the same time, we also need to be aware of the global distribution.

What happens to the carbon contained in glycolic acid?

Single-cell algae (also known as phytoplankton) convert carbon dioxide into biomass. Other microorganisms continue to process many thousands of tonnes of algae biomass on surface water. That’s when the algae excrete the carbon out again, or after the algae bloom has died. Glycolic acid, a direct by-product of photosynthesis, plays a decisive role in this process. Bacteria partially convert this substance back into carbon dioxide.

The researchers then explain that, in order to understand the global consequences of this and its consequences for climate change, it is essential to have an accurate knowledge of the bacterial breakdown of algae biomass. Consequently, it is necessary to know exactly where and to what extent these nutrient networks are occurring. And moreover, what happens to the carbon in glycolic acid. That totals about one billion tonnes per year. This was not exactly apparent until now.

Microbial research ranged from understanding molecular principles in the laboratory, to demonstrating their importance in the marine ecosystem. © Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology/Gunnar Gerdts

The mystery of the fourth enzyme

During subsequent research with databases, he saw a cluster of four genes that provided building codes for four enzymes. Although three combined enzymes are sufficient in order to further convert a compound derived from glycolic acid. That’s why Schada von Borzyskowski did a laboratory test with this fourth enzyme to find out what its role is. He discovered that in this context, the enzyme provides a previously unknown reaction, referred to as imine reduction. The metabolic process is completed with this fourth reaction by creating a cycle “which allows the carbon in glycolic acid to be converted without releasing carbon dioxide.”

More articles on marine pollution can be found here

Metabolic cycle of the seas

The next step was to prove the presence and activity of these genes in marine habitats as well as their ecological importance, Tobias Erb explains. In the spring of 2018, the researchers carried out several expeditions near Helgoland so as to measure the formation and uptake of glycolic acid during algal blooms. They were able to demonstrate that the sea’s metabolic cycle actively involved in the metabolism of glycolic acid.

The bacterial genome sequences collected by the TARA Oceans expedition confirmed these results. This research spanned more than 10,000 kilometers of the world’s oceans. Blueprints of the metabolic cycle were found time and again. On average 20 times more often than all other known degradation processes for glycolic acid. “Our colleagues’ discovery in Marburg turns our earlier knowledge of what happens to glycolic acid upside down,” says Rudolf Amann. “Our data show that we need to recalculate the cycle of billions of tonnes of carbon in the world’s oceans.

Tobias Erb stresses that this work makes us aware of the metabolism of microorganisms and their global dimensions and how much remains to be discovered.

Photo caption: In satellite images, the algae carpets with their light streaks look like works of art. In the 70,000 square kilometre wide Deutsche Bucht alone, algal bloom produces about ten million tonnes of biomass in spring.

Start-up of the Day: Hydrogen as the ‘crude oil’ of the future

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Hydrogenious is the product of a university research team that already had faith in hydrogen when it still wasn’t really relevant in Germany. They have managed to find a way to store and transport the hard-to-handle hydrogen in a practical way. After a successful financing round, they now want to establish their LOHC technology worldwide and “make hydrogen the ‘crude oil’ of the regenerative era”, says co-founder Daniel Teichmann.

In terms of mass, hydrogen has three times the energy content of gasoline. This is an impressive feature for an energy source. However, hydrogen also has the lowest density of all gases and is therefore difficult to handle. It evaporates easily, is flammable and must be stored under high pressure or at low temperatures.

Evaporation and flammability

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies took up the challenge and solved both evaporation and flammability issues. The start-up company developed a process whereby hydrogen can be stored and transported together with oil (dibenzyltoluene) without risk. The result? The existing infrastructure can be used. Not only the fuel tanks at service stations, but also the pipelines for transportation. This could pave the way for emission-free mobility and industry.

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies is a spin-off from the Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Managing director and co-founder Daniel Teichmann has been working in the field of LOHC (liquid organic hydrogen carriers) since the start of his PhD in 2009. The company was founded in 2013 as a result of a critical technological breakthrough, which was also co-developed by professors Peter Wasserscheid, Wolfgang Arlt and Eberhard Schlücker.

Dewatering system

What was already working under laboratory conditions could be implemented on a technical scale for the first time in 2016. The first LOHC dewatering system was commissioned at the Fraunhofer ILO in Stuttgart. Electrolysis and hydrogenation take place at the main site in Erlagen. The process works as follows:

  • The hydrogen is produced with the aid of solar energy using PEM electrolysis,
  • Hydrogen is hydrogenated through the chemical bonding of hydrogen molecules to the liquid carrier via catalytic reactions,
  • During the dehydrogenation process, catalytic reactions are again used to release the hydrogen molecules from the liquid carrier medium,
  • The carrier material is not wasted and can be reused again and again.

Target groups are the chemical industry as well as service stations and the chemical industry. Hydrogenious sells two types of equipment. These are storage facilities for use in hydrogen-producing wind farms for hydrogenation, and the so-called Release Box at service stations and industrial installations for dehydrogenation.

 

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious
LOHC recycling system with storage installation and a Release Box (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Innovation Origins spoke with Daniel Teichmann:

What is your motivation and what problem does the company resolve?

We believe in hydrogen as a renewable energy source. This motivated us to start the company in 2013. At that time, we could have developed the technology together with industrial partners, but we wanted to be in business.

What has been the biggest obstacle that you have had to overcome? Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?

Giving up never occurred to us and fortunately there was never a reason to give up. However, setting up and developing a business is a huge challenge. At the start, it’s usually a matter of finding funding. In Germany, there is not really an explicit culture when it comes to venture capital. Things are different in the Anglo-Saxon world and in China. Six years ago, hydrogen was not yet playing an important role in Europe. This has changed over the past year. As a university spin-off, we started out with a technology that works at the laboratory level. We first had to bring it up to an industrial level and make it commercially relevant.

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies
Construction of the LOHC hydrogen infrastructure in the USA (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

What have been the highlights so far?

The successful funding round in July 2019, where we found four partners who not only act as capital providers, but also make a strategic contribution. This was an important milestone in the history of hydrogen-based LOHC technologies.

What are the advantages of your location?

Erlangen is an ideal location for us because of its proximity to the university, whom we also work closely with. In addition, the availability of specialists here is very good. We are also very lucky with our landlords, they’ve provided us with an excellent office and workshop space.

Where will your company be in five years’ time?

We want to progress from our current demonstration level to the realization of large industrial projects. We want to establish a successful global positioning of the LOHC technology. With our technology, hydrogen can then be easily and efficiently transported over long distances. For example, from Africa to Europe. That is how we can make an emission-free industry happen.

What distinguishes your innovation from similar products in the hydrogen energy sector?

Hydrogen has been produced and stored as an industrial gas for one hundred years. Our technology means that using hydrogen in a liquid form is feasible which thereby means it can make use of the existing infrastructure. In this way, we are turning hydrogen into the emission-free fuel of the future. Similar technologies exist in Japan, although they are not exactly the same. We are the technological leaders with our LOHC. As such, we hope to make an important contribution towards combating climate change.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read all articles from our series here.

Also interesting:

TU Eindhoven is bringing hydrogen as a source of energy for households one step closer.

Mobility of the future – battery or hydrogen?

Smart City Expo: The rest of the world wants to know how the Netherlands innovates

The Smart City Expo World Congress takes place in Barcelona, with 25,000 visitors the largest in this field. Over 250 of them come from the Netherlands. Report from the Holland Pavillion.

It is a coming and going of international delegations at the booth where the Netherlands give a dazzling show showing how Dutch municipalities and companies are at the forefront in smart and green mobility and in making cities resilient to climate change. Whether it concerns KPN’s 5G field lab on the Automotive Campus, the technology with which engineering firm Sweco will be able to give priority to electric cars at traffic lights and thus make them more economical, Dutch municipalities and entrepreneurs are in no way inferior to other countries in terms of innovation.

Read moreSmart City Expo: The rest of the world wants to know how the Netherlands innovates

European Commissioner Timmermans wants CO2 tax at the EU’s outer border

CO2 uitstoot schoorstenen

Dutch European Commissioner Frans Timmermans (who will be responsible for climate issues) wants to introduce a CO2 tax at the outer border of the European Union. This is in order to avoid products that have not been manufactured in a climate-neutral way. He announced this measure during his approval hearing at the European Parliament. There they are appointing the new European Commission which will take up office next month. According to Timmermans, this is the only way to get the European climate law passed which he is to present this spring. The exact date on which this border tax is to come into effect should be revealed in this climate law. It will apply to all Member States.

A 55% reduction by 2030

This climate law ought to include information on how the Member States will make their economies climate-neutral. CO2 emissions must be reduced by 55% by 2030, Timmermans announced. That is 10% more than what was originally agreed to. By 2050, CO2 emissions need to zero out on balance. With that commitment, in two weeks’ time he will start his mandate as European Commissioner for Climate Change. His most important task will be to deliver a so-called ‘Green Deal’. The new climate law is an important part of this. Along with that, he wants to overhaul legislation on greenhouse gas emissions and energy.

European Commissioner Frans Timmermans announces the CO2 border tax in the European Parliament Image: still live streaming

The problem is not that achieving CO2-neutral production is not technically possible, says Erik Klooster. He is managing director of VNPI, a Dutch association which brings together the major petrochemical companies (together with the chemical and metal industries, who are the main producers of CO2), such as Shell and Esso. “It is,” he states. The problem is that making the industry CO2-neutral makes manufacturing much more expensive. This makes the industry less competitive compared to industry in countries that are not implementing any climate measures. If there is no such border tax, European industry will be forced out of business. “Esso has been calling for this kind of carbon adjustment or carbon border tax for years,” says Klooster. “It is the only way to make Europe climate-neutral.”

A leading role

That is also what Commissioner Timmermans told the European Parliament, who will have to approve his new climate legislation next year. “We shouldn’t want to bring in products that are cheaper because they have not taken the environment into account. I think that such a CO2 border tax will be subject to an assessment from the WTO. If, for example, a country such as China or India also starts to produce in a CO2-neutral way, we will drop that tax on their products.”

Also read: Former Secretary of State of the United States: Quadruple the CO2 price and let the polluter pay

Empty gas fields

That’s also the purpose of such a levy, says Klooster. “The EU’s share in global CO2 emissions is relatively small. So we don’t have to do it for that sake.” The EU, and the Netherlands in particular, can play an important pioneering role by involving other countries in the world such (as India and China) in the production of clean energy. “Industry in the Netherlands is geographically close to each other. There are enough empty gas fields available in the next few decades for storing CO2 that has been emitted and captured. It is therefore cheaper to build a pipeline for CO2 transport to an empty gas field than it is in England, for example. Industry is scattered all over the country there.

Extracting CO2 from air

Another method of achieving CO2-neutral production is to capture the greenhouse gas and bind it to hydrogen via a chemical process. This creates a synthetic fuel that can be reused. This is also a way to ensure that aircraft that don’t fly electrically and therefore continue to emit CO2 will still be able to operate in a climate-neutral way, says Klooster. “You can extract the amount of CO2 that an aircraft produces out of the air, and then store or process it.”

Also read: Aviation industry to European Commission: ‘money is needed to develop zero-emission aircraft’

National Parliaments

The question is whether national parliaments are prepared to sign the climate legislation that Timmermans will be proposing. For example, the Polish Member of the European Parliament Anna Zalewska ( from the Conservatives and Reformists faction) said at the Timmermans hearing prior to his appointment as European Commissioner for Climate last month, that she feared it would destroy Polish industry. Much of it runs on coal. “Hundreds of billions of euros are needed to make the transition possible. We just don’t have that.”

Euro-parliamentarian Anna Zalewska, from the Conservatives and Reformists faction, says that Poland does not have enough money to abandon coal.

Money for Poland en Greece

Timmermans replied that money had to be sent to countries such as Poland and Greece because they are unable to pay for the energy transition themselves. “My grandparents were miners in Heerlen. When the mines were still open, Heerlen was the second richest city in the Netherlands. After the closure of the mines, Heerlen changed into one of the poorest municipalities in the Netherlands. We must make sure that we prevent this from happening in the European regions that are currently dependent on coal.”

Also read: BMW Director: ‘Make recharging electric cars as easy as recharging smartphones’

Timmermans stressed that there is absolutely no future for the coal industry. He wants to work together with national and local authorities, the European Investment Bank and make use of existing EU funds for this transition by diverting them towards making the EU climate-neutral.

Cost: 200 billion euros per year

An important part of the money needed to make poor, coal-dependent regions climate-neutral should come from richer EU countries such as The Netherlands and Germany. Their national parliaments must approve the new climate law, including the redistribution of financial resources. Commissioner Timmermans predicted that it would take in total €200 billion a year over the next five years to make the EU climate-neutral. “But the Member States are almost as stingy as the Dutch,” he said. “They have to open their wallets.”

Start-up of the day: Field Factors recycles rainwater in a compact modular system

De waterzuivering bij Sparta in Rotterdam

Field Factors enables purification and storage of rainwater with the use of their Bluebloqs circular system. It can be applied in an urban environment like that of the Sparta football club in Rotterdam. The system offers the advantage that it takes up very little space. The water can be recycled during dry periods several months later.

Commercial director Wilrik Kok (36) talks about the innovative character of Field Factors.

How did the idea for Field Factors come about?

We all have a background in spatial planning, including at TU Delft, e.g. landscape design, architecture and industrial design. We saw that rainwater was often just being drained off while there was a demand for water for irrigation and cooling later on. This awareness existed even before the very dry periods of recent summers. As an example, that you could take advantage of this opportunity when a sewage system gets replaced. Field Factors wants to manage water differently and in a natural way.

What kind of things does it do?

The application of Bluebloqs is key. It is a compact, green system that collects and purifies 95% of the rainwater through biofiltration in conjunction with underground storage technology. This allows parks to remain green and sports fields can be kept in optimal condition every season. The water is good enough for industrial use too.

For example, at the Sparta stadium in Rotterdam the rainwater drainage system has been disconnected and is being prepared for recycling which happens in four steps. Rainwater will be collected in the stadium and at the nearby square. Together these cover an area of six football pitches in total. This water will be collected in a reservoir underneath one of the Cruyff Courts (mini football fields made of artificial grass in public spaces, ed.) This polluted water is then decontaminated using plants and sand. The purified water is stored in an underground water reservoir. W hen it’s hot This water can be used by children who are playing to cool them down. As well as for watering the Sparta sports field. Flooding is prevented during heavy showers. The square is greener and the football club has a sustainable water supply.

Location, location, location

It is a comprehensive approach, from the beginning to the end and where maintenance is concerned. We base our work on the location and use it to make a quick scan. What is the ground underneath like, and is decoupling possible? We then make a draft sketch to offer an idea of what is feasible and what it will cost. If the interested party agrees, we work on it up until the specifications phase when a contractor can take over and get to work. After it is completed, we remain involved in monitoring and maintaining it.

Het team van Field Factors, plus een onderzoeker en twee afstudeerders
The Field Factors team, including a researcher and two graduates. With founders Wilrik Kok (left) and Karina Peña (right).

What makes your company stand out?

What’s special is that Field Factors is busy with the design of the water system at a very early stage, but also remains involved afterwards. That usually doesn’t happen. Construction of water drainage systems and their management are usually carried out separately from each other. Aside from that, the actual physical integration is unique to Bluebloqs.

How have the reactions been so far?

When we first started out, the problems surrounding dry weather were not yet apparent and it was really a matter of first seeing, then believing. In retrospect we did choose the right momentum as it is very topical nowadays. Up until now, we had primarily been working on unique locations and pilot projects which can also serve as an example for regular application of our system in the vicinity.

What has been the biggest obstacle?

Initially the local community – even people out and about on the streets -was reluctant and they found it difficult to accept the way it works and is built. Or even that a water purification system can actually be used in a public space. Usually these are hidden underground, but we have deliberately opted for visibility. And by that I specifically mean the location. That in the first instance, you pick a particular place where many people flock to, and use that for the Bluebloqs Biofilter.

What have been the highlights?

That was last year at Sparta in Rotterdam. Then you’ve built something and it’s exciting to see if it works properly. A lot of water is being processed at that location. So, if things go wrong you’re bound to get a lot of unwelcome attention. And in October we won €100,000 as finalists of the Green Challenge. This is an annual, international sustainability competition held by the Dutch Postcode Lottery.

What can be expected in the coming year?

We are racing to build five systems. One of these is definitely going to succeed, but all lights are green for the other four projects as well. Besides that, we are expecting an answer from our patent application. And we are launching a new product, an extension of the Bluebloqs product line. A rain garden, so to speak.

Where will Field Factors be in five years’ time?

We will have grown and have a team of fifteen people. By that time we will have fifty systems operational in The Netherlands. We will also have shifted our operations to Spain. Our director Karina Peña is in fact a Spanish speaker. Spain is likely to suffer more and more from increasing drought as time goes by.

Read moreStart-up of the day: Field Factors recycles rainwater in a compact modular system

Pinpointing air pollution – from outer space

Nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2) are emitted primarily during combustion processes which involve coal, oil, gas, wood, waste and engines. But they are also generated during industrial processes and in agriculture. Pinpointing pollution sources and then measuring substance emissions such as nitrogen oxides can pose major problems for cities and municipalities. But this is exactly what is needed in order to be able to predict air pollution from nitrogen oxides and develop strategies for their reduction. Moreover, according to national and international conventions such as the Kyoto Protocol, countries must specify how high their greenhouse gas and air pollution levels are. The data is documented in what are known as emission inventories.

© German Federal Environment Agency

Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument

Yet daily satellite measurements, which have so far been one of the methods used, do not provide accurate results. This is because the instrument tracks a specific area and registers all pollutants between the ground and the satellite. These values often vary widely and are therefore usually recorded over a period of several months. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz explain that emission values determined from space tend to “blur” as a result of fluctuating winds. This in turn reduces the spatial resolution of the measurements.

In collaboration with colleagues from China and the USA, research scientists have now found a way to vastly improve the spatial resolution of nitrogen oxide emission data. They do this with help from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) recently launched S5P/TROPOMI research satellite. TROPOMI stands for Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument. In addition to nitrogen oxides, the spectrometer also measures other pollutants and greenhouse gases. These include carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ozone and methane. The spectrometer has been flying around the Earth on board ESA’s Sentinel-5 Precursor (S-5P) satellite since October 2017.

More articles on air pollution can be found here.

Local analysis to within two kilometers

Thanks to these values provided by TROPOMI, scientists are able to determine the exact amounts of pollutants emitted more accurately. The team combined measurements from the satellite with wind data. They were thereby able to ascertain the levels of underlying emissions from the horizontal transport of the pollution. TROPOMI is also able to reconstruct the blurred data.

The TROPOMI instrument on board the Sentinel-5P research satellite is measuring a large number of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides. Source: ESA

“Our method enables us to pinpoint specific emission sources, such as individual coal-fired power plants, with an accuracy of up to two kilometers separate from any surrounding pollution,” says Steffen Beirle. He is the first author of the study published in the current issue of the research journal Science Advances. Furthermore, “the levels of pollutants emitted can also be quantified more reliably. Plus, emission inventories can be examined for their topicality and spatial distribution.”

The scientists maintain that emission patterns facilitate clear identification of specific sources and distinguish power plants from other sources such as traffic. It was possible to create a detailed emission pattern with the help of this new method for the area around the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. Among other things, it revealed the pollution emissions from various oil and gas power plants in the vicinity. After the researchers had also prepared these types of emission patterns for Germany and South Africa, it also became clear that coal-fired power plants are the largest single sources of nitrogen oxides in those areas.

Cover photo: Nitrogen oxide emissions in Northern Rhineland. Evaluation of median satellite data (April to October 2018) using the new method clearly separates the Niederaussem and Neurath coal-fired power plant emissions from those of the cities Cologne and Düsseldorf. Source: MPIC, S. Beirle

Start-up of the day: Carefree electric travel with EP Tender battery trailer

The EP Tender looks like a camper’s tiny pod caravan that’s towed behind an ordinary car – but it isn’t! It is actually a mobile battery that will someday make it possible to travel hundreds of kilometers with an electric car. At present, most EVs usually don’t go further than 150 kilometers, so says the founder of EP Tender, Jean-Baptiste Segard. The battery is then empty and needs to be recharged. Segard hopes that the masses will switch to buying an electric car as soon as EP Tender’s battery trailer comes onto the market.

What motivated you to set up EP Tender and what problem did it resolve?

“I first came up with the idea of a trailer with extra capacity for the electric car like our current EP Tender when I wanted to buy an electric car myself. That was back in 2012. I couldn’t find a suitable electric car at that time. The range was not great enough for the few times a year when I wanted to travel much further. I thought it was a pity that there wasn’t a modular system around that would supplement the electric car’s battery so that I could occasionally travel longer distances with it.

At first I thought of a trailer with an internal combustion engine which might run on petrol. But in 2018, we switched to a trailer with an auxiliary battery, because then we would be better able to meet the needs of the electric car manufacturers. We will have to halve our CO2 emissions by 2030. And that is something that car manufacturers must also work towards.

150 kms of extra range

The rationale behind the battery is that you only hire it when you need extra range. Generally speaking, I think this would only be about six times a year for me. You can lengthen the range of your electric car from about 150 kilometers to 250 to 300 kilometers. You could also place a larger battery permanently in your car so that you can keep on driving. But that is far too expensive for most people. This remains an obstacle for them as far as switching to electric-powered transport is concerned.

Installing a larger battery is generally not an efficient solution for increasing the car’s range either, as most people drive just a few times a year further than an average car battery can handle. Otherwise you would be driving around with that heavy battery for no reason. You can compare the weight with that of a cow or a donkey. You’ll have these on your back seat during every short trip. Why would you want to do that if you don’t need to?”

The EP Tender team: Frederic Joint, Jean-Baptiste Segard (second from left), Hugo Basset, Fabrice Viot, Dingjie Ma, Hancheng Yang

What is the main obstacle you will need to overcome?

“It is very difficult to be taken on board in the development plans of car manufacturers. The automotive industry has been around for 120 years. And the planning cycle is lengthy when it comes to developing a new car. That said, we are in talks with a number of car manufacturers. However, a contract with any of them is yet to materialize. It is important that this happens. After all, the car manufacturers must apply for approval from the statutory regulators for use of the EP Tender system with their electric cars. They will only do that once they have our technology fitted to their cars. We cannot do that for them. As long as they haven’t got that done, there won’t be a market for us.”

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“In 2018, when we switched to a battery in the EP Tender instead of a combustion engine. That way you can rely even more on sustainable energy.”

The EP Tender mobile battery Photo: EP Tender

What can we expect from EP Tender in the coming year?

“Our business model must be in place by then. We are now completing a survey using data from 350,000 consumers which should show what most people would be willing to pay when hiring the EP Tender. As well as how often, where and when they could use the EP Tender. We are now putting the finishing touches to the robotics of the trailer so that it can connect itself to the car. The idea is that every 50 kilometers along the road there will be a service station where there will always be twenty EP Tenders ready to be connected. We are currently discussing the location of these service stations with energy companies. But also with private motorway operators in various European countries who have a state concession for these. They have an interest in electric cars being able to add energy in time so that they don’t end up stuck on the roadside.”

Where would you like to be with EP Tender in five years’ time?

“Then we would like to be profitable. Or at least break even. The outlook is that 40% of cars will be electric by 2030. So the demand for the EP Tender should have increased by then. By 2025, we want our trailer to be available for hire in the major European countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. But also in Austria, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Denmark. And we want to have a foothold in the US, China and India.”

What does EP Tender’s innovation improve upon compared to products in your segment of the market?

“That drivers of electric cars can drive a long distance without having to constantly worry about their battery’s energy reserves.”

Tomorrow is Good: a higher speed limit for electric vehicles makes sense

The Netherlands is struggling with nitrogen emissions. Dutch lawmakers are trying to work their way towards compliance with the agreements made earlier in Paris. Nevertheless, they are still lagging behind on an international level.

In light of agriculture being one of the pillars for these emission measures, parliamentary plans to reduce their footprint has bumped up against fierce protests from farmers. There seems that there is no end in sight to this anytime soon.

Lowering the speed limit

One of the other key pillars concerns the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) emissions that are to be reduced by lowering the speed limit on highways from 130 to 100 km per hour according to a recently made decision.

For many, many years, Dutch lawmakers have been successfully promoting EV (Electric Vehicles) with tax incentives and campaigns to support electric transportation.

Rather curious

With that in mind, it is rather curious to me that the perspective absent in this 130>100km topic, is one which would allow EV cars to keep the 130km limit. Lowering the speed limit for these vehicles which have a lack of any actual NOx emissions, makes no sense. Although this may impact the number of accidents. Yet there is no significant gain for the emission footprint with the reduction of the speed limit for electric vehicles. On the other hand, maintaining the higher speed limit might even act as an incentive to drive electric vehicles.

Read moreTomorrow is Good: a higher speed limit for electric vehicles makes sense

Start-up of the day: Heat Power generates extra energy when there is no sun or wind

During his mechanical engineering studies at the TU in Eindhoven, Henk Ouwerkerk came up with a system that allows combined gas and steam turbines to generate supplemental electricity ‘on demand’. And now, fifteen years later, his idea has evolved into a product that he plans to sell through his company Heat Power. It will be on the market for the first time next year.

What motivated you to set up Heat Power and what problem does it resolve?

“I always wanted to become an entrepreneur and I always have all sorts of ideas too. I had written down a few of them and I thought they could turn out to be something. I have been lucky enough to have been given the freedom to design a prototype at the TU/e during my Masters and subsequently as part of my PhD in Mechanical Engineering.

My idea was to enhance electric generation from existing combined gas and steam turbines so that they can meet market demands more quickly. So turbine can generate more electricity when there is more demand, and less when there is less demand. This innovation is particularly interesting for smaller factories that use steam, for example to heat raw materials during their manufacturing process.

Electricity on demand

A combined gas and steam turbine which is capable of generating electricity is already a reality in large power plants. But these turbines run continuously and on the basis of a consistent air flow. You can’t turn them on or off from one moment to the next. This is possible with our system, the Rankine Compression Gas Turbine (RCG). How? We let the steam turbine drive the gas turbine’s compressor. We then use a special valve in order to gauge how much air can or cannot pass through the steam turbine. The more air you let in, the more electricity is produced by the generator connected to the turbine. This allows you to generate as much electricity as you need at any time. That way you save on costs as a company. Because then you don’t have to buy energy from an external supplier.

If you generate more power than you need for your own manufacturing process, you can also sell it if there is a demand for it. You could earn money from that. Our Rankine Compression Gas Turbine generates electricity on demand. That’s very useful. Because when a great deal of sustainable solar and wind energy is already being produced, you don’t want to add to the electricity supply. That’s of no use to anyone. In that case, the electricity grid might become overloaded.”

Henk Ouwerkerk (right), project engineer Jeroen Schot and project leader Marc van Erp Photo: Heat Power

What has been the biggest obstacle that you have had to overcome?

“Our turbine is an industrial hardware product. You have to finance the transition from an idea to a working system in a factory. Before you get that far, you are already talking about an investment of $1 million. And then you haven’t even done anything over the top. The steam turbine that we had to buy was the most expensive component for us. I found a used one in Germany. The new price is €150,000. But I bought this one for €10,000.

I attracted investors and issued shares for each stage of the design of Heat Power. At first, these were business angels from my own network, and then investment companies later on. I also applied for an energy innovation grant from the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. Looking for funding was half the work. I also spent many years investing my own unpaid time and money in it. We did energy consultancy work for third parties through the company. That’s how we earned money. We put that back into the company. We have made steady progress thanks to this diverse mix of income.

In the early days, I was also a truck driver in the evening hours for one of my business angels who is in the meat industry. I also drove trucks full of beer crates to supermarkets’ distribution centers for a beer brewery at night. I am a night person, so that wasn’t a problem. Then at 10 a.m. the next morning, I started tinkering with the prototype for my own company again.

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“That was the pilot at the Hout Industrie Schijndel factory towards the end of last year. Our Rankine Compression Gas Turbine is actually integrated into the manufacturing process there. We were able to demonstrate that our turbine is capable of a quick change of gear without hampering the manufacturing process.”

What can we expect from Heat Power in the coming year?

“Then we will bring our first full-scale commercial model onto the market. The model used in the pilot is made up of just one module. You need several in order to be profitable because you can then generate more electricity that way. We currently have three potential customers. But we are hoping for more.”

Where do you want Heat Power to be within five years? What is your ultimate goal?

“That purchasers of steam turbines will be able to choose the Rankine Compression Gas Turbine as an extra option via the established suppliers. The market in Europe, where there are 25,000 companies that use steam, is large enough for us.  Although it continues to be a niche market. After all, these are exclusively companies that use steam in their manufacturing process and that want to generate flexible electricity.”

What does Heat Power’s innovation improve in comparison to products in your segment of the market?

“That you only need to generate extra electricity with this turbine when there is a demand for it. In order to supplement the supply of renewable energy from the sun and wind, which is very difficult to regulate.”

 

 

Read moreStart-up of the day: Heat Power generates extra energy when there is no sun or wind

TU Eindhoven is bringing hydrogen as a source of energy for households one step closer

Vlag TU Eindhoven

A fridge-sized electrolyzer for each neighbourhood: this device stores all the energy from the solar panels on the roofs in the neighbourhood during the day as hydrogen. Underground gas pipes then transport hydrogen to the homes where the central heating boiler has been replaced by a fuel cell. This converts the stored hydrogen back into electricity. For Emiel Hensen, professor and dean of the Faculty of Chemical Technology at the Eindhoven University of Technology, this is more than just a dream. Thanks to an invention by his research group together with Chinese, Singaporean and Japanese researchers, Hensen has developed a catalyst that makes the storage of energy in hydrogen 20 times more effective.

Together with other Eindhoven researchers and a group of industrial partners from Brabant, Hensen is working on setting up an energy institute at the Eindhoven University of Technology to accelerate the development of this technology.

How does it work?

professor Emiel Hensen, Molecular Catalysis, inorganic materials chemistry, Scheikundige Technologie, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven

Catalysts accelerate chemical reactions, but the widely used metal platinum is scarce and expensive. Researchers have now developed an alternative with a 20times higher activity: a catalyst with hollow nanocages of an alloy of nickel and platinum. Hensen wants to use this new catalyst to develop a refrigerator-size electrolyzer of about 10 megawatts in the future. The results are published today * in the journal Science.

By 2050, the Dutch government aims to get almost all of the Netherlands’ energy requirements from sustainable sources, such as the sun or the wind. Because these energy sources are not available at all times, it is important to be able to store the generated energy. Given their low energy density, batteries are not suitable for storing very large amounts of energy. A better solution is chemical bonds, with hydrogen as the most obvious choice of gas. Using water, an electrolyzer converts (an excess of) electrical energy into hydrogen, which can be stored. At a later stage, a fuel cell does the opposite, converting the stored hydrogen back into electrical energy. Both technologies require a catalyst to drive the process.

The catalyst that helps with these conversions is – due to its high activity – mostly made of platinum. But platinum is very expensive and relatively scarce; a problem if we want to use electrolyzers and fuel cells on a large scale. TU/e catalysis professor, Emiel Hensen: “Fellow researchers from China, therefore, developed an alloy of platinum and nickel, which reduces costs and increases activity.” An effective catalyst has a high activity; it converts more water molecules into hydrogen every second. Hensen continues: “At TU/e, we investigated the influence of nickel on the key reaction steps and to this end we developed a computer model based on images from an electron microscope. With quantum chemical calculations, we were able to predict the activity of the new alloy, and we could understand why this new catalyst is so effective.”

Successfully tested

In addition to the other choice of metal, the researchers were also able to make significant changes to the morphology. The atoms in the catalyst have to bond with the water and/or oxygen molecules to be able to convert them. More binding sites will, therefore, lead to a higher activity. Hensen: “You want to make as much metal surface available as possible. The developed hollow nanocages can be accessed from the outside as well as from the inside. This creates a large surface area, allowing more material to react at the same time.” In addition, Hensen has demonstrated with quantum chemical calculations that the specific surface structures of the nanocages increase the activity even further.

After calculations in Hensen’s model, it turns out that the activity of both solutions combined is 20 times higher than that of the current platinum catalysts. The researchers have also found this result in experimental tests in a fuel cell. “An important criticism of a lot of fundamental work is that it does its thing in the lab, but when someone puts it in a real device, it often doesn’t work. We have shown that this new catalyst works in a real application.” The stability of a catalyst must be such that it can continue to work in a hydrogen car or house for years to come. The researchers, therefore, tested the catalyst for 50,000 ‘laps’ in the fuel cell and saw a negligible decrease in activity.

The possibilities for this new catalyst are manifold. Both in the form of the fuel cell and the reverse reaction in an electrolyzer. For example, fuel cells are used in hydrogen-powered cars while some hospitals already have emergency generators with hydrogen-powered fuel cells. An electrolyzer can be used, for example, on wind farms at sea or perhaps even next to every single wind turbine. Transporting hydrogen is much cheaper than transporting electricity.

Hensen’s dream goes further: “I hope that we will soon be able to install an electrolyzer in every neighbourhood. This refrigerator-sized device stores all the energy from the solar panels on the roofs in the neighbourhood during the daytime as hydrogen. The underground gas pipelines will transport hydrogen in future, and the domestic central heating boiler will be replaced by a fuel cell, the latter converting the stored hydrogen back into electricity. That’s how we can make the most of the sun.”

But for this to happen, the electrolyzer still needs to undergo considerable development. Together with other TU/e researchers and industrial partners from the Brabant region, Hensen is therefore involved in the start-up of the energy institute of TU Eindhoven. The aim is to scale up the current commercial electrolyzers to a refrigerator-size electrolyzer of about 10 megawatts.

* This research is published in Science on November 15th, with the title ‘Engineering Bunched Pt-Ni Alloy Nanocages for Efficient Oxygen Reduction in Practical Fuel Cells’.