Heating up European relations: researchers turn industrial furnaces green
Heavy industries like metal foundries, glass, ceramic and cement makers rely on large, energy-guzzling furnaces to heat materials during processing. But the drive to make processes more economical and ecological requires new, more efficient technologies.
Now, thanks to a four-year project EDEFU – New Designs of Ecological Furnaces – funded under the EU’s FP7 Cooperation Specific Programme and Nanotechnologies, Materials and Processes NMP Theme, a consortium of SMEs and research organisations have designed new furnaces that heat materials in novel ways.
New furnaces could radically reduce power consumption, waste generation and particle emissions, as well as transform heat losses into usable energy and recycle carbon monoxide produced during the process, explains Ane Irazustabarrena, who coordinated the project and has worked for Tecnalia for the past 20 years, currently as director of programmes in the industrial and transport division.
She describes the excitement of seeing prototype furnaces switched on for the first time and how the EDEFU project is helping aluminium foundries, glass, cement and ceramic industries adopt new energy efficient technologies based on completely different heating principles.
What did you hope to achieve with the project?
This project represented one of the first opportunities for the process industry in Europe to benefit from European support for improving efficiency from the point of view of resources, energy and waste. The main idea was to develop and define new designs for heating systems and think about how to make furnaces more efficient from a holistic point of view.
We worked with four sectors: aluminium foundries, glass making, ceramics and cement. We wanted to see how hybrid heating systems could be combined to make efficient and sustainable furnaces for the process industry in the future.
What issues did you want the project to tackle?
First of all, of course, we wanted to reduce CO2 emissions by a target of 20%. The heating systems that are currently used are mainly based on gas. Instead, we wanted to combine other types of system using electricity. We came up with systems based on microwaves or plasma technologies combined with induction systems.
Initially, we targeted these solutions at the aluminium industry, but we also combined radiation technology with microwave systems for ceramic applications. We also designed a nice system for the cement sector based on plasma technology for heating or gasifying waste and using this carbon monoxide to feed the kiln.
How did you become involved in this area?
On behalf of Tecnalia, I am always looking for new opportunities. We then ask potential partners, what do you think of this idea, would you be interested in improving your industrial plant? We started with one sector, in the case of EDEFU an aluminium foundry, and thought about which type of furnace could be most beneficial. Then we went out to other sectors like glass and cement. We ended up with a large consortium of 18 partners!
What have you achieved?
This research and innovation project developed and demonstrated a hybrid technology that shows good results. We built furnaces based on hybrid systems and demonstrated their capabilities at industrial sites.
The next step is implementation. We are in this stage now and we want to see if these systems can work in different sectors and be really efficient, working in an integrated way in a production line. One of our partners, Cemex, has found the system very useful but now needs to see how investment in the technology will deliver a return.
One of our other partners manufactures bottles in a process where glass is melted in a large (15 m long) furnace at a temperature of 1600°C over 24 hours. Instead, our microwave system is a completely different way of manufacturing glass. We can avoid having to keep the glass melt at a high temperature for an extended period – reducing the amount of energy expended. Using microwaves to melt the glass more quickly and efficiently makes the process more like flexible batch production. But glass manufacturers would have to completely change their production line layout – and that requires investment.
The results of the project were good, across all the sectors, but we are now in the ‘valley of death’ – and it is very difficult to manage the next steps. How can we overcome the difficulties of reaching the market?
If these technologies do reach the market, what could be the impact?
The impact of these technologies could be a 20% reduction in CO2 and a 20% improvement in energy efficiency, which are now part of the EU’s 2020 objectives. If adopted, we could establish more efficient processes and industries, specifically in very traditional sectors like steel, cement and glass.
Could these technologies revolutionize these industries?
I definitely think so! These industries will have to invest in new technology to improve their efficiency, environmental footprint and move towards more flexible production. We are thinking really hard about how to improve industrial plants and processes, how to make them more efficient, effective and flexible. If we are able to reach these markets and apply these technologies and encourage industries to invest in new technology it will be to their benefit, as well as to Europe and its citizens.
How can industries be persuaded to adopt new technologies?
We, and the EC, are trying to find solutions to overcome the ‘valley of death’. We are involved in a pilot production line initiative, called VANGUARD, for example. It is a bottom-up regional initiative that aims to create a network of demonstration sites and pilot lines enabling manufacturers in different sectors, including SMEs, to develop and introduce highly efficient and sustainable processes, technologies, systems and methods.
But industry itself has to take the lead and responsibility. If we are able to work together, with the same strategy and same objectives, I think it can be achieved. What we need now is a combination of private and public funding from Europe, the regions and industry, but in a coordinated way.
What has been the most exciting aspect of the project for you?
For me, the most exciting part was setting up the demonstrator furnace – it confirms that you have achieved something valuable. It was incredible to see the progress from an idea on paper, through many documents and reports, to a working system. I was very moved and emotional. I felt, after four years, we have really done it!
What are the benefits of being part of an EU project?
It is really challenging! When you are working in one sector, there is a single value chain. But in this type of project where there are several sectors, partners have different technologies, interests and objectives. You have to establish a positive climate at meetings to ensure that each partner listens to the others’ problems and solutions, and learns from one another. It helps to work in smaller groups and reach conclusions that can then be shared with the entire consortium. We managed to do this successfully in our project!
We have also been able to create new value chains. Why shouldn’t a small furnace manufacturer in the Basque region supply a German end-user or Cemex in Poland, for example? This is very difficult to achieve if you don’t work together. European programmes really demonstrate the ability to create new value chains and new ways of making business.
What are your key ingredients for a successful project?
The most important ingredient is good relationships – particularly at the beginning of a project. As a coordinator, you have to create a good working atmosphere within a consortium. You have to make objectives clear right from the beginning, because otherwise you will lose a lot of time defining and giving specifications on what to do and how to do it. And while you always have to be behind the consortium getting as much out of the partners as you can, you also have to be flexible.
Would you take part in another EU project?
I would say go for it! It is a really good experience in many ways. You will grow as a person, as a professional, and as a researcher. You learn a lot and establish new relationships, which can increase new business opportunities two-, three- or four-times over.