Sustainable energy challenge spurs SME interest
Europe's environmental SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are doing their bit to develop sustainable energy technologies, as CORDIS News learnt at a session devoted to SME research at the EU Sustainable Energy Week on 11 February. Kicking off the session, Bernd Reichert, Head of the Research and SMEs unit at the European Commission's Research Directorate-General, noted that his department was seeing increasing numbers of projects in the energy field. One of the projects featured at the session was PROBIO ('Production of biogas and fertilisers out of wood and straw'), funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The initiative for this 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. The PROBIO project 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 partners are still in touch and working together on further initiatives. Another project highlighted during the workshop was the FP6 project NODESZELOSS ('Novel device to study pulp suspensions' behaviour in order to move towards zero energy losses in papermaking'). As Leon Joore of project partner Millvision explained, energy is one of the highest costs for paper mills. 'When you make paper, you have to pump the pulp through pipes,' he said, noting that there are hundreds of pumps in one mill. The fibres in the paper have a tendency to flock together, reducing the flow rate in the pipes. The viscosity of the pulp (and so the energy needed to pump it around the system) varies from one paper type to another, yet before the NODESZELOSS project came along, there were no devices that were able to accurately measure pulp viscosity. The project partners developed such a device, effectively fuelling our understanding of how paper pulp flows and how adding different substances to the pulp affects the flow. This knowledge will help the paper industry improve the design of its pipes and pumps, and so drastically reduce its energy use. Meanwhile, the project partners are improving the device with the aim of commercialising it. As its name suggests, the aim of the DeSol ('Low-cost low-energy technology to desalinate water into potable water') project, which drew to a close last year, was to develop a low-energy desalinisation system. The most innovative feature of the prototype developed by the partners is that it utilises the height difference between the device's water columns; this generates the vacuum needed to lower the boiling point of the water in the device (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 funding to refine their device and bring it to the market. Rounding off the session, moderator Jos Beurskens of ECN Wind Energy in the Netherlands commented that the presentations had enhanced his view that 'SMEs are a major engine of innovation'.