At the Hof University of Applied Sciences, a start-up that could provide important solutions for the energy transition is attracting attention: BtX energy GmbH offers various processes for producing high-quality hydrogen from biomass. In addition to the distribution of turnkey plants for steam reforming biogas, the young company first wants to develop an overall concept for the regional production and use of green hydrogen for the Hof region – a groundbreaking undertaking.
Andy Gradel is a trained mechanical engineer and senior engineer at the Institute for Water and Energy Management at hof University of Applied Sciences (iwe). The 30-year-old, who recently completed his doctoral thesis, has been working on the question of how to extract clean energy and heat from biomass since 2016. In cooperation with his industrial partner, WS — Wärmeprozesstechnik GmbH from Renningen, Swabia, Gradel has now succeeded in developing a new type of wood carburetor through many experiments as part of a doctorate in the context of the Technology Alliance Oberfranken (TAO).
Award for Research
“Our carburetor is based on the use of the process’s own charcoal as a tar filter. As a result, we achieve a significantly lower maintenance and at the same time more flexible operation of the system – compared to the current state of the art. This makes our wood carburetor financially attractive,” explains Andy Gradel. The Bayreuth native was recently awarded the “Young Academics Award for Bioenergy 2020” as the best young researcher in the field at a conference in Zittau for his research on the process.
Market walk with professionals
Andy Gradel now wants to bring the successful technology to the market. Contrary to assume, btX energy GmbH, which was founded as a result, is no one in the industry: the renowned entrepreneurs Joachim Wünning and Martin Schönfelder, managing directors of WS Wärmeprozesstechnik GmbH, which received the German environmental award for FLOX® technology (flameless combustion) in 2011, are co-partners. In addition, Prof. Tobias Plessing, Scientific Director of the Institute for Water and Energy Management (iwe) at the Hof University of Applied Sciences, is involved. Together, they want to make a contribution to the energy transition.
Hope for the biogas industry
In addition to the further development of the wood carburetor to market maturity, the young company will primarily launch hydrogen production sites for biogas plants on the market. A look at their current challenges shows how important such inventions are for the biogas industry: According to expert estimates, the biogas industry is threatened by a complete decommissioning in the coming decades. The reason for this is the 20-year feed-in tariff for green electricity from these plants. At present, follow-up contracts often do not allow the existing plants to continue operating economically. The actors of BtX energy GmbH now want to offer the solution to the problem.
Hydrogen in high quantity possible
Hydrogen is already a widely used raw material and at the same time an essential energy source of the future. However, where and how green hydrogen can be produced industrially and in bulk at economic prices remains an unresolved question: “While most actors in the energy market focus on electrolysis from the renewable surplus stream, the new technology will make turnkey plants for steam reforming biogas possible. This can be of enormous benefit to the struggling biogas industry,” says Prof. Tobias Plessing from Hof University of Applied Sciences.
Space-saving container solution
The turnkey complete solution for biogas reform is now intended to revolutionize the market – in the form of an unobtrusive and space-saving container solution. “Production costs per kilogram of hydrogen can even be significantly lower than with electrolysis,” says the young entrepreneur. Decentralized generation would also minimize or at best avoid the complex and energy-intensive road transport of hydrogen, which would also have a positive impact on the economic viability of the plant and the overall energy balance of the project.
Support for operators
In addition to the production and distribution of the plants, the newly founded company also wants to enable future operators to sell hydrogen on the markets. After all, operators of biogas plants are mostly anchored in agriculture and therefore not classic energy traders. “Ensuring that the investment yields enough profit is absolutely necessary. BtX energy GmbH is facing this challenge as a provider of complete solutions,” says Managing Director Andy Gradel. From production to sales at the pump, use for garbage trucks, agricultural machinery or public transport: “Wherever hydrogen can drive the energy transition, agriculture, the biowaste recycling industry and many other actors can make their contribution: decentralized, immediately implementable, around the clock at full load and due to direct material conversion with impressively high efficiency. We want to support this.”
Concept for the region
The aim of the researchers and entrepreneurs is also to use the Hof region together with the regional players to develop an example concept for the production and use of green hydrogen, which can then be adapted nationally or even internationally. “Like most Bavarian regions, the region is generally rural and agricultural and at the same time densely populated with companies in the field of logistics. This is an ideal prerequisite for sketching and advancing an example of an entire regional added value of hydrogen from biomass. We are currently looking for partners from politics and the local community. Our clear goal is to implement this on the ground and thus also to promote the mobility revolution in the Hof region,” says Managing Director Andy Gradel. The first plant to demonstrate the functioning and cost-effectiveness of this project is already under construction.