Wil Sillen's post

Will farmers become the new energy suppliers thanks to iron powder?
By: André Oerlemans

Farmers who use their own wind or solar energy to produce iron powder that nearby companies can burn as a green energy source. A circular process that you can repeat infinitely. It is a way to stop using gas and coal, to store green energy for the long term, to solve grid congestion and to offer farmers an alternative revenue model. “This will be our iPhone 1.”
This was the message received by visitors to the Metalot@Work 4 conference in Den Bosch on Wednesday, December 13. There, the Metalot knowledge center and the ZLTO, the association that represents the interests of 12,000 farmers and gardeners in the south of the Netherlands, announced that they would jointly investigate in 2024 how the first local collaborative projects with iron powder can be designed.

Just as important as hydrogen?
Can iron powder become as important a green energy source as hydrogen in the future? If you ask Philip de Goey, founder of Metalot and also professor of energy technology at TU Eindhoven, the answer is 'yes'. It can store green energy from the sun and wind just as well and for just as long as hydrogen, but it is a factor of five to ten more compact. So you can store much more energy in a smaller volume. It is also less dangerous and safer to transport than hydrogen. Burning iron powder is safe and clean and does not emit CO2. And – important for farmers and users – the process hardly emits any nitrogen.

Can always be reused
The powder is very easy to store and can be reused over and over again. It works as follows: if you burn, or oxidize, iron powder, heat is released. You can use this to heat homes, buildings and industrial processes or to generate electricity. After burning, iron oxide remains: rust. You can convert this into clean iron powder using hydrogen from green energy. Then the whole process can start again, making it circular. “This makes it a clean alternative to gas, oil, coal and other fossil fuels and offers the same comfort,” says Metalot director Raoul Voeten. “You can switch the process on and off whenever you want. Moreover, iron ore is the most abundant element in the composition of the earth's crust at 32.1 percent and can be found spread all over the world.”

Idea from space travel
De Goey got the idea of ​​metal powders as a green energy carrier during his collaboration with the space organization ESA in 2015. Voeten is also familiar with the technology from his previous job at the Space Campus in Noordwijk. “Metals are found on all planets, so in space travel people looked at metal powder as an energy carrier for rockets and missions to other planets,” he says. “But why wouldn't we apply that technology here on Earth?” That is why De Goey started an extensive research program at TU Eindhoven that partly led to Metalot and has now spawned various student teams and start-ups that have started working with the technology, such as RIFT - in which Bill Gates invests - and Iron+, a joint venture from existing companies that together have all the technology in-house.
Congestion due to electrification
In order to no longer emit CO2 by 2050, more and more companies and homes must switch from fossil fuels to green energy. This is already leading to congestion on the electricity grid, meaning that solar and wind farms cannot be connected or are shut down on summer days. Some companies and large consumers no longer receive a connection from the grid operators. Farmers are also often unable to transfer the solar energy from their own roof to the grid.

Energy farmers
But what if farmers use their solar and wind energy to turn their rust barns into clean iron powder again? This offers opportunities for long-term storage of green energy, because it is stored in the iron powder. That is also cheaper than purchasing a battery. The iron powder can then be transported to adjacent industrial estates, where companies in a joint energy hub generate clean energy by burning that powder. “The chain is thus complete. We do not have to buy out farmers with high nitrogen emissions, but we connect them to local entrepreneurs and help them with a new revenue model,” says Voeten. “Then they become energy farmers and supply not only food but also local energy to society."
Our iPhone 1
What this requires - in addition to the cooperation of the farmers - is equipment builders who build the necessary equipment and silos to turn rust into iron powder again and store it. And installation companies and boiler builders for the power stations that allow companies to generate an average of 1 megawatt of energy by burning iron powder. Voeten is already in contact with various parties that can supply such devices on this scale. Companies such as Family Brewers Swinckels (Lieshout) and Ennatuurlijk (Helmond) have carried out the first practical tests with boilers of this size. “Apple also did not wait until the iPhone 14 before launching its first device on the market, but came up with the iPhone 1, which perfectly met the needs of the market and provided a huge market pull. We think that setting up this small chain will become our iPhone 1 and will make a real contribution to the energy transition,” says Voeten.

Application to Growth Fund
Metalot has its own test facilities in Budel: the Future Energy Lab (FEL). The role of this lab is to boost the technology, valorize it and prepare it for the market. Including by linking start-ups, governments, knowledge institutes, producers and users. In order to develop and apply the technology on a large scale and make it an accepted part of the energy mix, Metalot is part of a consortium led by TU Eindhoven that will submit an application to the National Growth Fund in June 2024. “This technology offers the possibility of transporting green energy over great distances and retaining and storing it for a season,” says Voeten.

  • Munene Mugambi

    18 w

    It surely is an effective approach to hope farmers can source energy from themselves. A cost effective measure

    • Rukia Ahmed Abdi

      18 w

      This innovative approach envisions farmers as energy suppliers by producing iron powder from their own wind or solar energy. The circular process offers a sustainable alternative to gas and coal, addressing grid congestion and providing farmers with a new revenue model. The potential of iron powder as a green energy source, storing energy efficiently and safely, makes it a promising contender alongside hydrogen. The concept, inspired by space travel, has practical applications that could contribute significantly to the energy transition and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. This initiative reflects a creative and sustainable step forward in the fight against climate change.

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