THE ENERGY TRANSITION IS IN FULL SWING. The share of energy generated sustainably is increasing every year. Electrically powered cars, vans and even trucks populate our roads. Even heavy industry can rely on CO2-neutral alternatives, such as hydrogen.
But consider shipping. In terms of logistics and intermodal processes, it can havean enormous impact on the overall carbon footprint - ours’, our clients’ and, forthat matter, the world’s. So it’s natural that we ask: what are the game changers inrenewable energy? We speak with Max Aerts, CEO and founder of DENS.
Energy transition is on many companies’ minds. What’s the latest?
“Energy transition is about a mix of proven technologies and new ideas. I believe there should be room for almost all of these. There’s no golden ticket or a single universal solution for everything. No technology that works regardless. It’s like with people: you can’t excel at everything.”
So, what should we be looking out for in renewable energy?
“From a technical perspective, much more research is now being done at molecular level which is where the really interesting discoveries are being made. In principle, we can copy everything we find in nature, even diesel. The challenge, however, is that this creates long, complicated molecules. Producing and burning them is fairly inefficient. On the other hand, you can’t go wrong with a simple molecule - from which hydrozine, for example, can be built. Hydrozine is also known as the liquid hydrogen carrier ‘formic acid’. It is a safe fuel that’s produced completely sustainably using green electricity. There are also no residual products left when you burn it which makes it very clean.”
And are fossil fuels such as diesel being edged out?
“Diesel is actually supreme in terms of energy density. Compared to hydrozine, it provides five times more energy per litre while being a third lighter in weight. It’s just a pity that it emits all those harmful substances. Diesel produces energy by being literally detonated in a controlled manner - a process which hasn’t changed in the last hundred years. But we’ve done more than enough of that now. It’s time to get smarter and do better.”
We already have clean trucks with no combustion engines. What’s next for shipping?
“Boats on inland waterways pass through the built up environment. There are places everywhere where they can moor. Soon that won’t be in order to fill up with diesel but with liquid hydrogen. Or to exchange an empty battery container for a full one. There’s also talk of fuels like ammonia, but that involves unacceptable risks in many applications due to its toxicity. Which technology you bet on depends on three key points: safety, energy density and cost. Theoretically, we could equip ships with small nuclear reactors which would have super high energy density but super risky too. And cost-wise it’d only be viable if the ship operated for about a hundred years.”
DENS has been very succesful with the development of hydrozine aggregates and battery systems. These supply energy to places where there is no or insufficient grid connection, or where clean energy is a requirement due to regulations.
What about ocean going container ships that can’t simply dock whenever they want?
“Good point. Making this sector more sustainable is a real challenge. There’s plenty of experimentation going on with sails and kites which can save 15 to 20 percent on fuel. That’s really a lot. But I doubt that diesel will be abandoned completely any time soon. In the middle of the ocean you need a safe and reliable energy supply. Diesel, or biodiesel, is one of the few options that scores well on energy density, cost and safety.”
Why is sustainability not one of your “three key points”?
“Well you need to include sustainability under the umbrella of “safety”. Higher nitrogen levels or poor air quality in urban areas are good examples. If you want - or have to - counteract things like this, you need to take it into account in your overall choice. This almost always has a cost impact. Renewable energy currently costs more. If governments don’t make it mandatory, no one will opt for a more expensive alternative. The fact that it is now imposed by the CSRD (the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive) is therefore necessary for its success. It ensures that alternative technologies achieve scale, with correspondingly competitive costs. I am convinced that sustainable energy will come to the same price level as today’s conventional technologies.”
What advice would you give companies interested in renewable energy sources?
“We often hear about project teams that try to think everything through in meetings. The pros and cons. The ifs and buts. All the practical challenges to be overcome. But because you’re doing something new, you’re going to also run into new, unforeseen things - which you really need to experience first-hand. I often tell them to just rent a hydrogen-powered excavator or truck, step out of their conference room and try it out without risking much. Whatever happens you won’t do any harm to any business critical operations, and you might actually discover better ways of doing things. Then just take it from there. You could learn more in three working days than in six onths sat together around a conference table.”
Read this article on the website vandenbosch.com
Text: Dimphy van Boxtel
Photography: Damion Thakoer