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Successful in the Hof start-up ecosystem: The BtX energy start-up story

The Campuls article “The successful start-up ecosystem at Hof University of Applied Sciences” described the local infrastructure around the Einstein 1 start-up center as well as the focus of teaching and offerings for a successful start-up. But what can this look like in practice? The success story of BtX energy GmbH is a good example of a start-up story following the customer journey described.

On 18.11.2020, BtX energy GmbH was born. As a joint foundation of actors of WS Wärmeprozesstechnik GmbH and the Institute for Water and Energy Management (iwe) of Hof University of Applied Sciences, the emergence of the new company was initiated by the shareholders Dr.-Ing. Wünning, Dr. Martin Schönfelder, Dr.-Ing. Andy Gradel and Prof. Dr.-Ing. Tobias Plessing. From now on, BtX stands for the generation and storage of clean energy with a focus on biomass as a renewable source.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Tobias Plessing and Dr.-Ing. Andy Gradel; Image: Hof University of Applied Sciences;

Activation of networks

During his doctoral studies at RWTH-Aachen in 1998, Prof. Plessing had jointly investigated with WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik the process of flameless oxidation (FLOX), which is an invention of J.A. Wünning. This combustion process enables low-emission high-temperature processes in various industries. Also during his industrial activity, Prof. Plessing cooperated with WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik in investigations on the use of FLOX technology in the glass melting process

After Prof. Plessing was appointed to the Hof University of Applied Sciences, the contact was revived. WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik subsequently gave a research contract to the Institute for Water and Energy Management at Hof University of Applied Sciences. As a result, Hof Master’s graduate Andy Gradel was able to start a cooperative doctorate with the support of Prof. Andreas Jess from the University of Bayreuth in the field of wood gasification. Gradel was able to be co-opted into a graduate program and thus had good conditions for a successful doctorate, which he successfully completed in the fall of 2020. With Prof. Jess from the Chair of Chemical Process Engineering, good laboratory conditions were available for the investigations in the TAO-sponsored Center for Energy Technology (ZET) as part of the Technology Alliance of Upper Franconia (TAO) network.

Idea takes shape

The founding process began with a new idea from the founder of WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik Wünning: He wanted to gasify wood in such a way that the “tar problem” would be solved in the process. To explain: During wood gasification, tars are always produced, i.e. higher-value hydrocarbons, which combine to form a black, viscous mass when the wood gas cools down and then foul pipes and valves as “tar” downstream. This leads to high maintenance and cleaning costs for the plants – or the plant must be operated continuously with high-quality dry biomasses, so that tar formation is low and maintenance intervals can be somewhat longer. Regular filter changes and a tar disposal problem nevertheless remain.

To verify the idea, a dedicated test gasifier was set up by Andy Gradel at WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik to check the functionality of the process. In order to find the operable operating settings, numerical calculations were carried out in parallel with the experiments, via which residence times, temperature curves and component designs could be made. Thanks to the support of Prof. Robert Honke, with whom Andy Gradel specialized in numerical simulation methods during his master’s studies, new mathematical models could be developed. The numerical calculation methods also led to the necessary scientific publications as part of the doctoral process.

Bundling as a start-up

The cooperation between WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik and the research institute iwe of the Hof University of Applied Sciences was then continued with the aim of developing a prototype of a wood gasifier. In addition to the doctorate, other final theses were written by some Hof students. This gave rise to further ideas on how biomass can be used to produce synthesis gases or even green hydrogen from biogas. At a cooperation meeting in the newly built Einstein1 startup center in Hof, the idea came up to bundle the future activities in an own startup there

Prototype of the plant; Image: Hof University of Applied Sciences;

There were several reasons for this. On the one hand, Wünning was very enthusiastic about the general conditions created at Hof University of Applied Sciences with the EINSTEIN1 startup center and the new iwe building across the street. On the other hand, it was possible to reduce on-site travel expenses for graduates between Renningen, the headquarters of WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik, and the institute. Another reason is the proximity to the iwe, in order to be able to attract graduates who would like to remain in their home environment to the new company in the future. One could also say that in the course of digitization, it is less important that new activities of established companies always have to develop at the headquarters, but rather that the company comes to the people or into the environment of a university. This is precisely the goal of the numerous digital incubators in Bavaria. Business models can and must be rethought in the digital world.

Conversion of biomass is industrialized

The name BtX energy GmbH was also quickly found in a brainstorming session in the creative ambience of EINSTEIN1. The goal of the newly founded company is to convert biomass into other forms of energy (heat, electricity, fuel gas or liquid fuel) in a decentralized modular design. The company name is derived from “Power-to-X”, which has become an established term in the energy industry in recent years. While most players in the energy market focus on the electrolysis of hydrogen from surplus renewable electricity, the new technologies also enable pathways to hydrogen and other downstream chemical products through the use of biogas (steam reforming) or solid biomass (gasification).

Figure 1: Process schematic for the production of hydrogen from biogas

Figure 1 shows an example of the production of hydrogen from biogas. Andy Gradel won the 1st prize at the Startup Challenge of EINSTEIN1 with his freshly prepared business plan. The GmbH, which has been registered in the commercial register since the beginning of the year, is now working concretely on industrializing the biogas reformers and the wood gasifier from the research project and building them up in container modules.

Figure 2: BtX container module for the production of hydrogen from biogas;

The wood gasifier is to be commissioned at the Hof site in the next few months, while the container plant for the production of hydrogen from biogas (see Figure 2) is currently being set up at the headquarters of WS-Wärmeprozesstechnik. The future will show whether it will supply a new hydrogen train as part of the HyExpert funding program or even be used in the Upper Franconia region.

Excerpt after 5 years

In the course of the good framework conditions for research and development for sustainable energy topics, new publicly funded projects for BtX energy GmbH are looming on the near horizon. Andy Gradel, the operative managing director, looks optimistically into the future for this. After five years, EINSTEIN1’s startup support plans to move out of the Digital Startup Center and develop commercial real estate in the regional environment.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Tobias Plessing
Prof. Dr. Michael Seidel

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