In Europe, industry uses about a quarter of all energy and therefore emits about the same amount of CO2, which is even higher overall. Most of that energy is consumed as heat, not as electricity. The heat leaving those processes is rendered unusable and this residual heat is cooled to the environment. It is a huge potential source of energy savings if it could be exploited further. That is exactly what the Antwerp scale-up Qpinch, a spin-off of Ghent University, wants to achieve. They have just won the prestigious ICIS Innovation Award from the petrochemical industry and we asked Erik Verdeyen, Qpinch's Chief Evangelist, why it is so important to them and what Qpinch wants to achieve.
How would you summarize Qpinch's cleantech innovation?
Qpinch is inspired by the energy process in nature: the ATP-ADP cycle in living cells. Our cells use chemistry to store and release energy. This works well at low temperatures, but it is not suitable for industrial applications. We have therefore been looking for ways to imitate this with inorganic chemistry and at much higher temperatures.In essence, our invention is a large-scale copy.
Working principle of the Qpinch Heat Transformer
Our installation extracts part of the energy from the residual heat to create new process heat of much higher temperature - sometimes with an increase of up to 100 degrees - which is reusable in the processes. So, we turn energy that seems completely worthless into new, perfectly usable heat.
This process heat is usually produced with natural gas or other fossil fuels, so in addition to the financial savings - energy is sometimes even the biggest cost in the production process - you also drastically reduce CO2 emissions. In fact, we invented a kind of turbo to put on a factory: it can now produce as much with less energy.
How does Qpinch compare to the competition?
The reason why, by looking at chemistry, we have chosen a different direction to explore solutions for energy efficiency is that existing heat pump technologies can hardly, if at all, be applied in industry on a large scale and at high temperatures. So, we are not really competing with existing heat pumps; there is immense potential in that area where there is currently no solution, which we want to tap into. This so-called 'blue ocean' in marketing literature is where every company wants to be.
In order to bring industrial energy consumption to zero, you need several of the three strategic options below to get there. Firstly, non-fossil sources such as green electricity, biomass, geothermal energy, etc. can be used. This is not easy, however, because you are talking about tens or hundreds of megawatts of heat. In the large complexes it is even gigawatts of duty. What's more, you often need it 24 hours a day - you can't just make it green overnight by adding solar panels and windmills. A second option is to capture the CO2 and store it in the underground, the so-called Carbon Capturing & Storage (CCS), while still using fossil fuel. Natural gas is relatively cheap, even in Europe, so switching to electricity costs considerably more and CCS is an extra cost that comes on top of the energy bill. The third option, which also saves money, is large-scale energy efficiency and that is where we have a breakthrough. The interesting thing is that energy efficiency reduces the share that you have to solve with the costlier solutions of CCS and green energy.
In fact, it is not a question of choosing between the three: industry will have to go all out. Major consultancy firms such as McKinsey, Deloitte, Solomon & Associates and Concawe have been saying for years that energy efficiency is the only solution that can bring substantial results by 2030, and it is also the cheapest option. It is therefore only natural that many European countries and the EU Innovation Fund are also using including energy efficiency in their subsidy policy.
In the port of Antwerp, our technology can save 200 000 tonnes of CO2 annually in the short term, and in the longer term, a million tonnes is not unrealistic.
A threat is, in fact, that companies and governments would not yet know us and would therefore overlook the potential to deliver short-term results.
What does the ICIS Innovation Award 2020 mean for Qpinch?
This is just about the most prestigious award for the petrochemical industry and our mailbox and social media reports were full of reactions. The jury was also very enthusiastic. When executives from BASF - the largest chemical company in the world! - and Accenture say that they chose us because of the wide applicability and that this is a real "game changer", then it has a lot more weight than if we say so. Normally, large chemical companies win this prize - now it's for a tiny player from Flanders. Their consolation prize is that we have a fantastic solution to their problem. (laughs)
The attention surrounding this recognition is once again awakening companies with which we have had contact over the past few years. Since 2019, you have noticed that net-zero emissions will be high on the list of priorities by 2050. It has become a strategic objective and companies are going to have to invest thousands of billions of euros over the next 20 to 30 years.
This recognition brings a lot of visibility to the people who are looking for climate solutions like ours - and also to the people who decide on the pennies at headquarters, who in our case are always abroad.
Locally, I hope that this award will bring a little more attention to the potential of energy efficiency in the petrochemical industry. Or perhaps I should say 'attention again'. Flanders has always been at the forefront of this. It had to be, with such high energy prices, because otherwise we would no longer have any industry here. However, the public debate here is mainly about the promise of CCS and hydrogen from 2030 and beyond, while there is still a great deal of potential to save industrial energy and therefore also CO2, starting right now.
What does internationalisation mean for Qpinch? In how many/which countries is Qpinch currently active?
99.5% of our market potential lies outside Flanders. Although we have Europe's largest petrochemical cluster in the port of Antwerp - and that's where some of our first customers are - there are thousands of petrochemical plants worldwide. Add to that the large food factories and paper mills and you have hundreds of companies that we can help to save CO2 and money on a large scale. Our focus is now on petrochemicals in regions where energy costs are high and in companies that are taking the lead in investing in large-scale emission reduction. In summary, this means the EU, the UK, parts of Asia and the Middle East. Of course, we are not going to do it alone: our plants are built by large, specialised companies in the petrochemical sector and we are partnering with companies who are integrating our technology into their solutions.
As a cleantech company you are always an international company. This is not obvious when there are only twenty of us - not even hundreds of people. That is why organisations such as Cleantech Flanders and Flanders Investment & Trade are crucial. FIT's local contacts and the targeted promotion of Cleantech Flanders and FIT can open doors much faster and save a lot of time - and work. Everywhere we go, we visit the FIT representative to introduce ourselves. So nowadays that's with Zoom (laughs). It's like having a new colleague because the reactions are always very enthusiastic and they are our ambassadors and even an extension of your sales organisation in all those interesting countries. That added value should not be underestimated.
Has Corona had an effect on Qpinch? And how is Qpinch coping with the corona crisis?
The corona crisis was annoying, because it delayed the signing of a number of orders and the start-up of our first installations, but it will be fine. We can also easily work from home and our engineers, who are on the wharfs or in our large hall in the harbour, are in the open air or in an open environment so that they can work corona-safe. That's not too bad.
What does the future look like for Qpinch?
Now that our first installations go live and demonstrate our technology on a large scale, it will be easier to convince new customers. We especially target companies that want to roll out Qpinch in all their plants through a programme. In addition, we also enter into partnerships with companies that can build or integrate our units into their solutions for the large industry. All this means that we will soon have to recruit a large number of experienced engineers to be able to cope with this growth.
The fact that we have reached this point is also thanks to government support from Vlaio and help from VITO, for example in Research & Development. We will continue to work on this, because we have a second product line that can mean a great deal for lower temperatures in the food and paper industry and which we also want to prepare for roll-out.
The distant future? We are going to make a big dent in the CO2 emissions of global industry!