‘We want to leave the world a better place’

Nominees for the Herman Wijffels Innovation Award, Circular Economy Category

The transition from a linear to a circular economy is both a necessity and a reality, but so far it is not occurring at the rate or scale needed. The key to turning this around is producing more smart innovations – like the ones conceived by the three nominees for the 2016 Herman Wijffels Innovation Award in the Circular Economy Category. With the November 3rd award presentation ceremony just days away, we caught up with the three promising start-ups to find out more about their exciting inventions: Blue Battery; vehicles running on formic acid; and rainwater collected for human consumption.

With a growing number of people switching to renewable energy sources, there is an attendant demand for more room to store all this energy – but what was missing in this picture until recently was an environmentally friendly and affordable battery. Enter AquaBattery, a start-up based on the campus of Delft University of Technology, which developed a pioneering product called Blue Battery that runs on nothing but tap water and table salt. The company’s product developer, Emil Goosen: ‘You have to imagine a stack of special membranes pumping water with a specific salt content back and forth. When there is a surplus of renewable energy available, we use the membranes to separate the salt from the water. That way, you end up with one water stream containing a large quantity of dissolved salt and another stream containing just a small amount of salt. This is how you store your energy. As soon as you need to use that energy, you merge the two water streams together, and electricity is generated during this process.’

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Truly self-sufficient

The Blue Battery was developed by students of Groningen University and Delft University of Technology. Goosen: ‘As people who are now in their twenties and thirties, we were born during a time when sustainability hadn’t become a catchphrase yet and wasn’t on everyone’s radar the way it is now. We are driven by a desire to leave the world in better shape than it was when we entered it. Our battery is already making a huge difference: compared to lithium-ion and similar batteries, its impact on the environment is minimal. Our processes don’t involve chemical reactions, and we don’t use any hazardous substances or precious metals, just simple tap water and table salt. Luckily there’s an abundance of both, and they are both fully renewable as well.’ The membranes too are 100% recyclable. ‘But the most exciting aspect of the Blue Battery is its potential to promote the growth of renewable energy, because once you can store energy, you can become truly self-sufficient.’

Thrilling experience

The solution developed by second nominee Team FAST, a student start-up founded on the campus of Eindhoven University of Technology, also revolves around energy storage. The company’s team manager and co-founder, Industrial Design student Max Aerts: ‘We were inspired by phenomena witnessed in the natural world. Plants generate energy during the day and store it at night so they can grow, and we were looking for a way to store renewable energy.’ His team happened to stumble on a catalytic converter developed by their university. ‘It was able to rapidly convert formic acid into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. We wanted to see if we could get a miniature vehicle to run on this mixture, and it worked: it turned out to be powerful enough to get a 20-centimetre car up and running! It was pretty thrilling to see.’

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Bus operating on formic acid

The team was emboldened by this first taste of success. ‘We went on to develop a fully operational scale model one metre in size. After presenting our new product, we ended up meeting with VDL Bus & Coach, and they suggested teaming up together to create a bus that runs on formic acid. The first buses will become operational in mid-2017, and we’re also looking to launch a car running on formic acid by the end of this year.’ Being a liquid substance, formic acid is relatively easy to store. ‘You produce renewable energy, store it in formic acid and then transport it to petrol stations. You then use it to fill up your car, the same way you currently purchase petrol or diesel. Of course, you will need to change the engine in your car to use this type of fuel, but the fact that the infrastructure is already in place is a major plus.’

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High-tech water reservoir

The third nominee, Hemel(s)water – a pun on the Dutch word hemelwater, which literally means ‘water from heaven’ but is also another word for ‘rainwater’ – produces rainwater harvested for human consumption. Albert Jansen, a former membrane technology expert at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), who developed the product, describes his brainchild as a “high-tech water reservoir.” ‘The water is directed through a gutter and a drainpipe into a first barrel, which serves as a container. Thanks to the force of gravity, it is then diffused through a special membrane before flowing into a second barrel. The water has now been filtered so thoroughly that it is clean, free from bacteria, and fit for consumption.’

Healthy drinking water worldwide

Jansen explains the numerous benefits of the ‘recycled’ rainwater: ‘The water is healthier than the tap water available to most people: it contains no bacteria, no medication residues and no limescale, and there’s zero risk of Legionella infection. The lack of limescale means your water equipment will last longer, and since you also don’t need electricity or chemicals to purify the water, it is exceptionally environmentally friendly.’ The product’s potential impact around the globe is even greater: ‘In regions affected by water scarcity, where drinking water is either hard to access or unsafe, Hemel(s)water can provide great-tasting and healthy drinking water for the local population. Our system is designed to survive long periods of drought. Fortunately, many countries have sufficient amounts of rainfall to balance supply and demand over the course of a year.’

Want to find out more?

More information is available on the AquaBattery, Team FAST and Hemel(s)water websites. The winner will be announced on Thursday afternoon, 3 November 2016 at the Herman Wijffels Innovation Event at CineMec in Nijmegen. Admission is free. For more information, please visit the Herman Wijffels Innovation Award website.

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