Bavaria brewery in Lieshout, Brabant, has once again achieved a world first by setting up the first industrial system to use iron powder as an energy carrier. Thanks to the efforts of the SOLID student team from Eindhoven University of Technology, the company is now an enthusiastic supporter of this circular energy carrier.
The combustion of iron powder is not new, for example it is used in fireworks and pyrotechnic displays to produce golden hues. But it also has a surprising potential benefit for industrial companies such as Swinkels Family Brewers (formerly Bavaria). The latter has built a test system at the brewery in Lieshout in Brabant to investigate the use of iron powder as a renewable source of energy.
Iron powder as a circular fuel? This unusual idea raised a few eyebrows at Swinkels Family Brewers. That iron powder can burn and produces beautiful colours in fireworks and pyrotechnic displays was something Marthijn Junggeburth, the manager responsible for the sustainability programme at the brewery, had heard of before. But that iron powder might be the ideal new, carbon-free and circular fuel for the brewery - that was new to him. Burning fine iron powder not only produces golden hues, it also generates a significant amount of heat. Exactly what the brewery needs.
Swinkels Family Brewers has been looking for suitable forms of renewable energy for the Bavaria brewery in Lieshout for some time. Their motives are deeply rooted in the company’s DNA: Swinkels is a family business and the current directors would dearly love to pass on a circular company to the eighth generation of the family.
Wind energy, biogas or hydrogen: all kinds of possibilities have already been explored. The brewery has also set up a consortium with two partners active in the food sector to investigate the use of geothermal heat. While this technology may be viable in the long term, geothermal energy is currently not capable of delivering the high temperatures that the brewery needs.
Then, out of the blue, the phone rings: it’s an unknown student from Eindhoven University of Technology, who wants to speak to somebody about iron powder. Who is the best person to take the call? That unknown student is Geert Vergoossen. He eventually gets through to Marthijn Junggeburth, the manager responsible for sustainability, safety and the environment at Swinkels.
Junggeburth pricks up his ears when he hears that iron powder can be used as a completely circular fuel. Furthermore, you can release this energy whenever and wherever you need it. In view of these benefits, Eindhoven University of Technology has been thinking about potential industrial applications for iron powder as a fuel for some time. The driving force behind this innovation is Philip de Goey, Professor of Combustion Technology at the university and an internationally respected expert in this field.
Geert Vergoossen is a member of SOLID, one of the student teams at Eindhoven University of Technology. The team is investigating ways of bringing this new technology to market. “We were looking for an industrial company where we could perform practical tests”, says Sofie Scheij, SOLID's marketing manager.
The students started by identifying 125,000 combustion-based systems in the Netherlands and then filtered them based on size and location. Then they used the Internet to identify people working in the technical departments. The first question on their list is whether using iron powder as a fuel is technically feasible at the company in question. “If the answer is yes, you can then go to the next level”, says Scheij. “After all, the technical department has confirmed that the idea can be made to work.”
One of those industrial systems is in operation at Bavaria Brewery in Lieshout. “We had our doubts”, says Scheij. “Students and beer? Collaborating with a brewery? A hidden agenda perhaps? But what the heck; we decided to go ahead anyway.”
Circular entrepreneurship is a key principle at Swinkels Family Brewers: not only are the breweries expected to be energy-neutral and recycle their process water, the waste flows and process by-products also need to be reused to the greatest possible extent.
Junggeburth immediately feels a wave of excitement as he listens to the student at the other end of the phone line. He quickly gets people together at the brewery to discuss the possibilities of the project and gives the green light for a test system shortly afterwards. “We are not the kind of company that spends weeks holding meetings about projects like this, however we do assess the risks before committing ourselves. This iron powder opportunity has come at exactly the right time. It is an extremely safe fuel and has the major advantage of not releasing any CO2.”
SOLID is pleasantly surprised by the prompt go-ahead. “The first meeting was very friendly and easy-going”, says Sofie Scheij. “Wherever you go in the company, you can see that they are completely committed to circularity. We have been doing this full-time for a year, so it’s almost routine for us now. Even so, our enthusiasm is infectious. Swinkels is on the same wavelength and there was an immediate click.”
With some tweaking and creativity, the students and the engineers at Bavaria succeeded in connecting the test system to the brewing process and running the first trials one month later. This system not only supplies the heat Bavaria requires for brewing fifteen million glasses of beer, it is indisputable proof that iron powder used as a fuel is a sustainable and safe alternative for industrial companies and power stations. “Iron powder is capable of burning in a controlled combustion process, but it can also explode”, says Junggeburth. “So you need to make sure that the plant is safe. We have worked everything out in detail and run all kinds of scenarios to prove safety.”
After the successful trial, the team felt it was high time to present the world’s first industrial plant to run on iron powder as a new circular fuel. However, the coronavirus epidemic threw a spanner in the works. All the ambitious plans for the presentation had to be cancelled and postponed time and again. In the end, Swinkels and SOLID decided to arrange the presentation online. With a handful of attendees rather than the anticipated audience of 600 people.
A race against the clock followed, with everyone working feverishly to set up a new online platform with a live stream. The students contributed an abundance of creative ideas: guests, videos, posters and speakers. “The students’ open-minded approach and enthusiasm was so refreshing”, says Junggeburth, who enjoyed the experience enormously at a personal level. “Sometimes we had to put the brakes on and slow them down a bit, as we wanted to handle the whole event as professionally as possible.”
The great moment finally arrives, nearly two years after the first meeting: via a live stream, the researchers of Eindhoven University of Technology and SOLID stand in the spotlights and present the system to the world, together with Swinkels Family Brewers and the Metal Power Consortium, which coordinates all the participants. The company and the students are extremely proud of their contribution to speeding up the energy transition.
“We all enjoyed showing the world that this technology is viable on an industrial scale”, says Sofie Scheij. “Iron powder as a fuel is worthy of widespread acceptance, just like hydrogen. The idea eventually is to convert coal-fired power plants to sustainable iron fuel-burning facilities.”
The online presentation generated thousands of hits, far exceeding the initial expectations. Newspapers, magazines and the international trade press published articles. And the scientific community also showed intense interest. “In the end, we reached a lot of people we would have liked to invite, perhaps more than we would have in a more conventional setting”, Junggeburth says musingly.
Scheij agrees. “Not only were we able to send the link to selected people active in the industry, we were also able to invite former SOLID team members, parents and friends. And they passed the story on to everybody else. The international press got hold of the story as well, making it even bigger than we could have hoped for.”
At the moment, SOLID is working on scaling up the system to 1 megawatt, ten times larger than the test system at Bavaria. The team is also working on various technical improvements to make the future production version even more efficient and compact.
Junggeburth points out that there are still many unanswered questions, particularly in the area of logistics. “How are we going to transport the iron powder? And where are we going to convert the rust powder, which is left behind as a by-product, back to iron powder? This needs to be organised efficiently and you have to coordinate all the different process steps.”
Swinkels wants to put the improved system into operation at the brewery when it becomes available. Junggeburth: “We see it as one of the viable alternatives for generating heat. SOLID has introduced us to the ins-and-outs of metal fuels and the potential applications in our industry. We are convinced that this technology fits well with our ambitions and long-term plans.”
Swinkels has become an enthusiastic convert to this circular fuel. “SOLID has shown that this energy carrier is perfectly viable. Our future depends on us remaining open to new developments like this and maintaining good contacts with research institutions like the university.”
Thanks to SOLID, Swinkels has finally found a sustainable alternative in its quest to identify the fuel of the future. “This really is a major step forward for us”, says Junggeburth. “Our colleagues have become extremely enthusiastic about iron powder as a fuel. And of course we celebrated this success with a good glass of beer and a fitting toast.”
Iron powder is a promising carbon-neutral, reusable, safe, compact and easily transportable energy carrier. When iron powder is burned, energy is released in the form of heat. That heat can be used to generate steam, which can be used in turn to generate electricity.
The advantage of iron powder as a fuel is that no CO2 is released during the combustion process. The product that remains behind after combustion is iron oxide, also referred to as rust powder. This powder can be converted into clean metal powder again (preferably using renewably generated hydrogen).
SOLID is the name for a team of students at Eindhoven University of Technology. The team’s composition changes each year and the students are involved in a range of projects designed to accelerate and facilitate the energy transition. During the course of those projects, they work together with companies, professors and former students.
The team currently consists of thirty students taking undergraduate and graduate courses. The industrial test system for burning iron powder is one of their projects.
The work for this project involves collaborating with the Metal Power Consortium, a partnership set up by the following organisations: Eindhoven University of Technology, Metalot, SOLID, Uniper, Enpuls, Nyrstar, EM Group, Heat Power and Romico.
Besides SOLID, Eindhoven University of Technology has formed several other student teams that work on projects in the field of sustainability, artificial intelligence, health and mobility. For example, they are working on a solar-powered family car, a car made from biocomposites, a drone assistant and renewable energy sources. The projects give the students the opportunity of applying their theoretical knowledge in practice and help them develop their interpersonal skills as they bring these innovative projects to fruition.
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