Start-up of the Week: Farewell to filthy seafarers?

”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.

CityStep – E-scooters set to soar in The Netherlands

The four students from Breda at CityStep have proven that holidays can sometimes also be a time to reflect and be inspired. Sometimes you don’t even have to come up with something completely new for a good business plan. Instead, you can simply shift an existing idea from one place to another. The Brabanders were so enthusiastic about their e-scooter tour during a city trip to Valencia that they immediately thought: ‘We have to got to bring this to The Netherlands too’. But that was easier said than done, as ever since the Stint tragedy in 2018, electric bikes in the Netherlands have suffered from a bad image.

The National Transport Authority (Rijksdienst voor het Wegverkeer) has significantly tightened up the rules due to safety reasons, but this did not prevent CityStep from going ahead with their plans. During a networking get-together on a rooftop in Tilburg, they came into contact with a scooter manufacturer that meets these strict regulations. The first rental scooters in Tilburg are now available for hire. The transformation towards an e-scooter empire which encompasses the Netherlands should take place over the coming years.

Wabenwerk – Done with non-recyclable plastic

The invention of plastic in the twentieth century meant a real revolution in the packaging sector and in food preservation. Yet plastic is both a curse and a blessing. Mountains of disposable plastic pollute the oceans and the stuff is so tough that it takes nature hundreds of years to break it down. How wonderful would it be if you could have the versatility and advantages without the drawbacks? More and more governments are working on reducing dnon-recyclable plastic. There is even a complete ban in Costa Rica. However, an alternative is needed. The founders of Wabenwerk in Germany were inspired by Mother Nature herself.

Bees in their natural environment are also constantly working on sealing their larvae, pollen and honey in their hives. They do this with honeycombs that they make out of beeswax. Wabenwerk developed a cling foil made of this organic material so that plastic foil is no longer necessary. Bees play a very important role in the pollination of crops in nature. They fly from flower to flower and gather more pollen on their feet. Whenever things go bad for these insects, you can also see this reflected in the environment. Do the diligent six-legged honey makers still play an essential role when it comes to the livability of our planet? That may very well be the case!

SARA – More mechanical hands on hand in homes for the elderly?

The workload within the elderly care sector is set to increase at an unprecedented rate over the coming years. In about ten years’ time, a relatively large group of elderly baby boomers will need a great deal of care. At the same time, there will be significant shortages in this sector. Nevertheless, there is a trend that more or less coincides with that of baby boomers who are in need of care. Namely, the rise of service robots. The Eindhoven-based company Bright Cape has designed SARA, which is a Social & Autonomous Robotic Health Assistant, SARA already carries out work in two Dutch senior citizens’ centers on the work floor. Ironically, this robot offers a modicum of humanity in times when every minute of care is supposed to be spent efficiently.

SARA is able to chat with chronically ill clients, play a number of interactive games with them and even has a program with made-to-measure physical exercises. This allows her human colleagues to spend more time on healthcare tasks. However, it is a bit odd that a robot like SARA is supposed to make sure that the human element comes back to the care for our senior citizens. Wouldn’t it be more logical to employ a robot nurse for the medical tasks and thereby give people more time for a cup of coffee or a chat about the weather? All the same, SARA is more than welcome! Clients and care staff are happy with this innovative nurse on wheels. She is a keeper for them in any event.

Heat Power – Flexible turbines for peak demand

The first two decades of the 21st century were characterized by flexibility. And if it’s up to Henk Ouwerkerk, this should also be the case for consumers of large quantities of energy. This Dutch start-up designed a system that they have called Rankine Compression Gas Turbine. A steam turbine that can be switched on when there is a need for more power. Why is this so convenient? Large consumers often buy electricity in bulk. So when they unexpectedly need more than that, they tend to buy extra. However, this costs them a lot of money and puts an extra burden on the electricity grid.

By using the RCG system from Heat Power during times of peak demand, you can avoid that this ‘peak demand’ becomes the new standard. You can’t use this superfluous amount of electricity for any other purpose, so it’s a real shame that it’s generated for no reason. The steam turbines can be activated in the event of a power outage but remain inactive for the rest of the time. Ideal for manufacturing companies that have to deal with fluctuating and unpredictable demand.

We4Sea – Farewell to filthy seafarers?

The fact that flying and driving contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases is now well known. We all have to live more sustainably on a massive scale and every polluter has to be involved in this. One sector which is somewhat less commonly recognized as far as this is concerned, is the shipping industry. Container ships are essential for the transport of goods around the world, but they have a very nasty disadvantage. They use heavy crude oil and this is about the most environmentally damaging fuel out there. In fact, one container ship produces as much carbon dioxide emissions as no fewer than 50 million cars. So there is a lot of ground that can be gained here, as they pointed out by the We4Sea start-up based in TU Delft.

What does this international team do? They use data models to advise the maritime sector on how to reduce their emissions by a substantial percentage. Measurement equipment usually has to be installed for comparable initiatives, which is easier said than done for large ships. We4Sea uses a unique technology that utilizes satellite data, ship position data, weather data and technical data from the ship for creating a computer simulation. Real-time advice is generated on the basis of this data. This enables the crew to drastically reduce their emissions. These energy-saving measures are not only sustainable, but also make a considerable difference in terms of costs for companies. Because, of course, no one wants to emit more than is strictly necessary just for the sake of it.

Much still has to be done despite the fact that in recent decades considerable steps within the shipping industry have already been taken towards a more sustainable future. The sector has set itself strict targets. By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 50%. While such targets are naturally a welcome first step, they still have to be met. This is also easier said than done. For example, the Dutch government has not met its 2020 targets. Nor do  they expect to meet those of 2030 either. Perhaps the shipping industry will succeed in 2050 with We4Sea’s help! Their single-minded, innovative approach to a sector that is not known for its flexibility and sustainability has in any case convinced us to honor We4Sea with the title of Start-up of the Week!

Start-up of the day: turning non-recyclable plastics into synthetic gas

The majority of plastic that is produced eventually becomes waste. Considering how plastic can take up to 500 years in order to decompose, recycling must take precedence in order to reduce the negative impact that this material can have on our planet. However, not all types of plastics are recyclable. For example, black plastic food trays are still impossible to recycle and tend to end up as waste.

The PowerHouse Energy Group is taking these non-recyclable plastics and turning them into raw materials (feedstock) which can be converted into gas. In order to do be able to this, the British start-up has created the DMG® System, which carries out this process in an environmentally responsible and economically viable manner. The DMG® technology can actually be used to dispose of a wide range of waste products by using them as feedstock. This is subsequently converted into their EcoSynthesis Gas during a combustion-free process.

Their technology leaves a minor footprint which utilizes less than half an acre, making it ideal for a variety of situations. On top of that, the gas produced by PowerHouse Energy is in turn able to be used to produce chemical precursors, enables extraction of a stream of ultra-pure hydrogen gas, or is capable of generating electricity for use within a business enterprise.

®PowerHouse Energy Group

Innovation Origins talked with director David Ryan about the 8- year-old start-up and the challenges of bringing this technology to the market.

How would you best describe your start-up?

We are a waste-to-energy technology company, we are focusing on regeneration of non-recyclable plastics and old components for the production of a clean gas that can be used as a replacement for natural gas in energy generation. Or alternatively, for where there is a market for hydrogen use as a resource. We do this by separating hydrogen from the gas so as to produce hydrogen which is compatible for fuel cells.

Director David Ryan. ®PowerHouse Energy Group

 What exactly are non-recyclable plastics?

Okay, non-recyclable plastics are typically plastics that are contaminated or those for which there is no current recycling scheme. At present, these include black food plastic trays or the hard plastic that we use for garden furniture and such like. Generally, there is no recycling available for these and these kinds of plastics will most likely end up in a landfill.

All in all, that sort of defines what feedstock is. What we do with it is: we introduce the feedstock into a controlled environment and then melt down the plastics until they are vaporized. We monitor the environment so that we eventually break down all of the long chain hydrocarbons, which gives us a mixture of gas principally made up of methane, carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

How much plastic waste do you process daily?

Technically, the unit we are currently working with has a capacity for 25 tons, but in our planning application for the first site, we have actually asked for the site to have a capacity of 40 tons. We think that the process will scale up to 40 tons, to a certain extent the process will work better this way.

However, at the moment the plant is working with 25 tons per day. It is a module plant and its a bit like it was dropped out of the back of a lorry. What I mean is that the main process unit itself is a bit bigger than a container, but only just a bit bigger than a container.

One ton of plastic, how much gas would that produce?

That would be a volume of about 30 square meters of gas, 30 to 35 depending on the sort of plastic. The gas has about the same sort of energy value as natural gas. That varies from 30 to 40 megajoules per kilogram.

Where does the plastic come from?

In the UK and in many parts of the industrial world, it would normally come from plastic recycling companies. Commercial and domestic waste goes to a major recycler. It first gets sorted in a municipal facility. Then it goes on to a plastic recycler who does a more careful selection of the plastic that they want. Lastly, what comes to our process is the plastic they are unable to use. It usually has been through three levels of sorting before it reaches our PowerHouse equipment.

So, is it mostly British plastic?

No, no. We are currently developing our first site here in the UK because this is where we are based. But it could be anywhere, and we carry out analysis of feedstock at each location so as to make sure that we are able to fine-tune the chamber conditions for the plastic in those countries. Because plastic, and how plastics are used, does vary from country to country.

What is the main difference between natural gas and the gas that you produce?

We are closer to the old form of municipal gas, before natural gas was ever used. This means we have carbon monoxide content, as well as methane. As such, in some ways it seems like I am going back to the future by generating a municipal gas. Some parts of the world are looking into shifting towards a hydrogen economy.  And this is one of the ways for switching over to a hydrogen-based economy, as we are already using a greater proportion of hydrogen in the gas stream.

Is there another use for hydrogen?

Yes. So, typically we can produce a volume of between 1 and 2 tons of hydrogen for fuel cell-powered trucks and shipping vessels. Therefore, one ton of hydrogen provides enough fuel for 30 trucks covering 300 miles. Normally, we would replace diesel, which has a daily production of about 70 tons of CO2. And a fuel cell-powered truck only produces water, there is no pollution.


What are some of the biggest obstacles when it comes to building up a company like this?

The company should not have gone to the market when it did, which was without the technology. So, there was and is always the market expectation that we’re ready to go. While it takes such a long time to develop the technology. That was one. The biggest challenge is then securing sufficient funding in order to complete the research and development phase. And at the moment, my biggest challenge will be building the first factory. We have a demonstration-sized plant, but we have to build a full-sized commercial plant. Building that – that’s my next challenge.

Are all processes currently being carried out in a demonstration-sized plant?

Yes, and the laboratory and the desk engineering and such like. We are confident in the scale-up. Think about it, if you consider that we are introducing a huge amount of plastic into a chamber which it is about 800 degrees C, it is not such a technical challenge to envisage how the plastic will melt and turn into gas. This is why the scale-up issue is, in fact, related to the characteristics of the gas. As in, we need to make sure that the gas we are seeking in the commercial plant, is going to be exactly the same that we find in the demonstration plant. Although we do have a more synergistic approach.  We check the work that we are currently carrying out and are using it as a benchmark.

And what has been the most gratifying moment for you?

Getting the gas, producing the gasses. We did the desk engineering, the theoretical models and then went on and did the actual demonstration so as to prove that we were getting a syngas comprised of more than 60 percent hydrogen. This is good for precision-engineered hydrogen production. That was fantastic.

The actual commercial contract we signed for our first factory – that felt pretty good as well.

In the upcoming year?

This year we are applying for a permit for the first block of land. We are also h0ping to secure funding for 11 plants. Which means that I am talking to pension investment advisors and investment companies, etc., with the aim of funding a UK pipeline for 11 projects. And then next year I will be looking into developing 2 or 3 other sites.

What makes PowerHouse Energy different from other start-ups?

We have a unique product, there are similar companies working on waste oils, although at present, no one else seems to be busy with the waste gas route, specifically not with hydrogen. In this case, we see ourselves as pioneers within the hydrogen economy.