Investments in research and development go hand in hand with competitiveness: The two megatrends of decarbonization and digitalization in particular are fuelling the development of new products and projects. Companies in the thermoprocessing industry will only remain successful if they increase their technological lead through innovation.
In Renningen near Stuttgart, WS Wärmeprozesstechnik GmbH develops and produces energy-efficient industrial burners for markets all over the world. A visit to the factory halls reveals the reason for the company's success: inventors are at work here, continuously developing their product. Low-emission combustion processes are central to this.
The company has focused on energy-saving gas heating systems for industrial furnaces. It stands for a technology in combustors that allows more efficient energy use and significant emission reductions in key energy-intensive technologies worldwide. At the heart of this is the Flameless Oxidation (FLOX®) process. With nuanced mixing of fuel gas, combustion air and recirculating exhaust gas, flameless combustion occurs. Many customers ask for such burner technology."Our claim at WS is to be able to offer solutions that reliably achieve NOx values below 100 mg/Nm³ over a wide temperature range. And this with a simultaneously very high combustion efficiency of over 80 %. Our solutions are already equipped for the future of green fuels," says Dr.-Ing. Wünning, managing director of WS Wärmeprozesstechnik GmbH.
New business areas are also a significant part of the company's development. Joachim G. Wünning and partners have constituted BtX energy GmbH in Hof, Bavaria. With its approach of producing hydrogen from biogas, the company has developed a plan that makes the decentralized production of hydrogen possible. A new company, a new market: It is particularly important for burner manufacturers to get to grips with sustainable gases and environmentally friendly heat generation. Here, new products must be introduced to the market at an early stage.
Research is the foundation of success
The German mechanical and plant engineering sector invested more than eight billion euros in research & development in 2019. According to a survey by the Stifterverband, this is an increase of 5.8 percent compared to the previous year. Thus, a preliminary peak has been reached. Almost 53,000 people were employed in research and development in 2019 - an increase of a good five percent.
"The figures prove that medium-sized mechanical and plant engineering companies are one of the most important innovation drivers in the industry. The companies dominate the production worlds and are solution providers for the entire economy - energy-efficient, sustainable and highly innovative," explained Hartmut Rauen, Deputy Managing Director of the VDMA.
According to surveys, the importance of research and development in the industry has remained at a high level even during the Corona pandemic. With regard to digitalization, the speed of development in research has increased even more significantly. The two megatrends of decarbonization and digitization are having an impact on the research landscape. This is also shown by the projects of many research institutes and the Forschungsgemeinschaft Industrieofenbau e.V. (Research Association for Industrial Furnace Construction).
"For Germany with its powerful economy, efficient research is essential; only with continuous innovation will we be able to hold our own in global competition," warns Hansjochen Oertel, Chairman of the Forschungsgemeinschaft Industrieofenbau e.V. (FOGI) within VDMA Metallurgy. The FOGI is made up of leading industrial furnace manufacturers who work together on new research projects.
For Harald Berger of the Aichelin Group, a manufacturer of heat treatment equipment with around 1,100 employees worldwide, research and development is also crucial to the Group's global performance:
"Research and development based on customer requirements and market trends has always been important for the Aichelin Group in order to help shape current challenges, such as decarbonization, electromobility and resource conservation, in a leading position," emphasizes Berger, who is responsible for market communications and has been with the company based in Mödling, Austria, for decades.
Additive manufacturing offers new possibilities
In Germany alone, there are around two million gas-fired industrial burners. With these burners, steel mills, paint shops, large bakeries, machine builders and other companies emit around one-sixth of annual carbon dioxide emissions. They also emit large quantities of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. The Technical Instructions on Air Quality Control (TA Luft) set exhaust gas limits for industry.
To reduce emissions in the future, Jens te Kaat, managing director of KueppersSolutions' company, uses additive manufacturing to produce energy-efficient burners. In 2019, KueppersSolution unveiled the new development of a 3D-printed mixing unit. "We are very proud to be able to contribute to making combustion processes in the industry more environmentally friendly," emphasizes CEO Jens te Kaat. The additively manufactured recuperator burner (CoReku for short) uses waste heat to preheat the combustion gases in a way that increases efficiency. It achieves an efficiency of over 80 percent when preheating the combustion air. This is made possible by a special combination of materials and a unique geometry in the recuperator, which is produced using 3D printing. A 3D-printed gas mixing system also avoids rising nitrogen oxide levels in the exhaust gas. The fuel requirement as well as the emission output of industrial thermoprocessing plants can thus be significantly reduced. Measurement series at the Gas- und Wärme-Institut Essen (GWI) have demonstrated the parameters.
The fields of application are diverse: in the OptiLBO research project, the Essen Gas and Heat Institute, Georgsmarienhütte Holding, KueppersSolutions and Küttner Automation want to make secondary steel production significantly more efficient and sustainable. German steel mills produce around 12 million tons of secondary steel per year. If the energy consumption required for this is minimized by 20%, this saves about 120 GWh of energy and 20,700 t of CO2. An amount of energy equivalent to more than 4,000 average single-family homes. In the OptiLBO project, the researchers are therefore investigating the Production in the electric arc furnace. An application example is the Bous steel mill in the Saarland region of the project partner Georgsmarienhütte Holding. Here, innovative burner systems and a clever control system are to be installed in order to consume up to 25 percent less natural gas. With the help of the advanced technology, around 5 GWh of energy and almost 900 t of CO2 could then be saved in a year.
Hydrogen - the energy carrier of the future
Alongside digitization, decarbonization is the most significant driver of innovation in metallurgical plant engineering. By 2045 at the latest, hydrogen is expected to substitute coal and natural gas in thermoprocessing and steel production. The future adaptations of gas as an energy carrier through the substitution or admixture of hydrogen have a significant impact on the design, construction and safety engineering of industrial firing systems. One thing is certain: the speed of innovation will have to increase in the coming years, as the end of fossil fuels has long since been heralded.