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Policy Update:

The challenge of sustainable energy fires up SMEs

The rapidly growing field of sustainable energy has become a key area for the EU's research framework programmes. This is also true for the Specific measures for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) funded under the Sixth and Seventh Framework Programme (FP6 and FP7 respectively). Now SMEs are playing an important role in the research process as the number applying for project funding increases.

Forming part of the recent EU Sustainable Energy Week, an SME Workshop organised by the SME unit (T.4) of the Directorate-General for Research (DG RTD) showed that SMEs are making a big impact on sustainable energy research. Opening the event, T.4's Head, Bernd Reichert also noted that his department was seeing increasing numbers of SME projects in the energy field.

Workshop moderator Jos Beurskens from the Netherlands' Energy Research Centre commented that the presentations had enhanced his view that 'SMEs are a major engine of innovation', a remark made all the more significant being delivered by the 2008 winner of the prestigious energy prize "Poul la Cour".

A string of innovative project presentations made it clear during the workshop that not only do these kinds of research initiatives focus on core problems in the sector as a whole, but also that they contribute substantially to the increasing knowledge in the politically important field of sustainable energy.

During the workshop, several project presenters made a general remark, stressing that further support is needed after the end of the project. This is required for further development and optimisation of the pre-commercial version of the project outcome - usually a prototype - in order to place it on to the market. Consequently, it would foster the economic benefits of the participating SMEs.

SME innovation

The initiative for the PROBIO ('Integrated promotion of the biodiesel chain') project came from an SME with an idea for a device that could turn substances such as straw and wood into biogas and fertiliser pellets.

Funded under FP6, PROBIO has developed a working prototype that the SME is using and refining. Patents covering some of the innovations generated by the project are also being prepared. Although the PROBIO project ended over two years ago, the five SME partners participating in the project are still in touch and working together on further initiatives.

Another SME project highlighted during the workshop was the FP6-funded NODESZELOSS ('Novel device to study pulp suspensions behaviour in order to move towards zero energy losses in papermaking'). According to Leon Joore of project partner Millvision, energy is one of the highest costs in a paper mill. The project partners - eight SMEs in all - have developed a device that will help the paper industry improve the design of the pipes and pumps involved in the paper production process, and so drastically reduce energy use and hence cost. Meanwhile, the project partners are continuing to improve the device and hope to take it to market soon.

A total of 2 SME Associations and 19 SMEs from 11 countries, including participants from the new Member States, participated in the FP6 SHERHPA ('Sustainable heat and energy research for heat pump applications') project to develop cost-energy efficient heating pumps that will comply with future environmental regulations. The research and technological development (RTD) work was performed by nine centres of excellence, and the project was able to show how natural refrigerants could perform efficiently and yet be sustainable and function safely.

DESOL ('Low-cost low-energy technology to desalinate water into potable water') has developed the prototype of a low-energy desalinisation system. Its most innovative feature is the way the system uses the height difference between its water columns to generate the vacuum needed to lower the boiling point of the water (at lower pressures, water's boiling point drops considerably). The small amount of energy needed to operate the system comes from a solar panel. The partners are now looking for further funding to refine their device and bring it to market.