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Crossing the seas with TopDutch WaterTech

The sea is a special challenge in the WaterTech business. There is plenty of seawater available, and that provides opportunities in terms of drinking water and energy. This seawater needs to be cleaned too. For companies that take on the innovative challenge in this area, the Northern Netherlands is a superb place to be.

Solutions for saltwater

Saltwater as a solution for the drinking-water shortage

In some parts of the world, tens of thousands of people live in regions without direct access to drinking water. They may have to walk hours to collect water. Innovative companies are developing solutions for dealing with this water shortage, for example by desalinating seawater to create fresh drinking water.

Low-energy system
Herre Rost van Tonningen, CEO of Solteq, strives to solve these types of water problems. ‘They look like beautiful places; situated on the coast, a major city with a dry climate. Yet, the shortage of water makes life difficult.’ Solteq developed a solution - a hydraulic pump that can desalinate water by using wind or solar power.

Solteq is not the only company that creates solutions, acknowledged Herre Rost van Tonningen. ‘There are basically two types of systems in the market, based on two different principles. Some systems work by evaporating and condensing seawater. This is only possible in areas with lots of sunshine during the day, and where it cools down significantly at night. Furthermore, those systems take up a lot of space and that is inconvenient in urban areas. The other way is by using membranes with reverse osmosis.’ That is what Solteq uses. ‘We are not the only company that does this, but we built the system in such a way that it consumes a lot less energy than most systems of this type. The energy that is required can be generated by sun or wind. It means our system works in areas that are off-grid, as long as there is sun or wind.’

Colombia is one of the countries where the Solteq system has been installed. The government provided funds for making drinking water available to some 200,000 people. A first step to possibly more areas where Solteq could provide a solution to the drinking-water shortage. ‘We are creating an oasis in the desert as it were.’ There are more places like Colombia, and governments will start to feel the issues of the water shortage. The aquifers of some cities are being drained, and that provides opportunities for companies with innovative solutions.’

Making the first steps with the Northern Netherlands
Solteq is based in the north of the Netherlands, which would seem strange for a company that works for areas with a drinking-water shortage - subtropical and tropical areas that are far away from the Netherlands. Yet it is a conscious choice, and not just because Herre Rost van Tonningen comes from the Netherlands himself. ‘The north of the Netherlands has some major advantages for us. First of all there are fairly generous subsidies, which allowed us to start up as a company. We were also supported by the WaterCampus; because of them we had the use of a test site. This is possible in other places, but it can take years before a permit is awarded. With support from the WaterCampus this was organized within six weeks, because we are an innovative water-technology company. That also helped to continue developing our product.’

You can help each other as companies to improve the technology even further and to find suitable solutions for all areas.

Herre Rost van Tonningen, CEO of Solteq

Cooperation makes you stronger
Herre Rost van Tonningen is also pleased with the Water Alliance, the Dutch WaterTech industry network that facilitates innovation and business from the WaterCampus. Due to the Water Alliance and the WaterCampus companies are able to act together. ‘Here we have many innovative companies that produce wonderful solutions. We don't see them as competition, in fact we simply enhance and strengthen each other.’ He believes there is still room for other companies that work on desalinating water. ‘We have a solution that works well in some areas, but for other areas there may well be better solutions to be found. Around the world there are so many areas that are or will be faced with a drinking-water shortage. You can help each other as companies to improve the technology even further and to find suitable solutions for all those areas.’

Sustainable energy sources

Energy from the sea

Seawater can also be used to generate energy, which is known as ‘Blue Energy’. The idea of generating energy by having water with different salt levels flow alongside each other was developed in 1954. Yet took another half a century before somebody came up with a way of using this method for large-scale energy generation. That was the founder of TopDutch company REDstack, Pieter Hack. He developed the RED technology (Reverse Electro Dialysis) - water flows past two membranes that separate negatively and positively charged particles. That produces a voltage difference over the membranes that can be used to generate electricity or green hydrogen.

Development in cooperation
REDstack developed this Blue Energy technology further in cooperation with Wetsus, the European Center of Excellence for sustainable WaterTech and science partner at the WaterCampus. The first tests with the technology were performed in their laboratory. The company Fuji Film provided the membranes. Since 2014, there has been a Blue Energy pilot with a system at the Afsluitdijk, where salt water from the Wadden Sea and fresh water from lake IJsselmeer flow into the plant. The pilots are proving to be successful and will be continued over the coming years. The pilots provide information about the effect of different types of seawater - brackish water from the Wadden Sea is proving to be less effective than salt water from the North Sea - and about the impact of the system on marine life. Due to the presence of many microorganisms and the brackish water, the Wadden Sea is not the optimum location, and therefore REDstack will start new pilots in another part of the Netherlands (Katwijk), where the river Oude Rijn flows into the North Sea. It will be possible to upscale at that site.

Further research
The fact that the project will be upscaled in a different part of the Netherlands, doesn’t mean that there is nothing going on in the north of the Netherlands. The pilot site at the Afsluitdijk will continue to operate until 2023. The company would like to expand that site with other partners into a so-called ‘Living Lab’, where broader research can be carried out into water, nutrition and energy. This is happening already. For example, there is research into sludge filtration and the opportunities of creating a nursery area for mussels. Such a Living Lab is a perfect match for the north of the Netherlands and the Afsluitdijk and could prove to be an interesting pilot site for other WaterTech companies. It provides the north of the Netherlands with more opportunities for water research alongside Wetsus, the Water Application Center and various other demo sites.

The Afsluitdijk

Other options
Blue Energy is an example of generating energy at sea; a Dutch invention that could be applied in more coastal areas around the world. There are more examples - the TopDutch start-up Ocean Grazer, a spin-off of research by University of Groningen, developed a floating platform that generates energy from the power of waves. This is another solution for sustainable energy that could provide an answer in many coastal areas, including those with less fresh water. The opportunities provided by the sea are endless and there are likely to be many more discovered. This presents a challenge for innovation with the north of the Netherlands as the ideal place to start - the knowledge from the university, Wetsus, education in the maritime sector, pilot sites and WaterTech companies that are open to collaboration are together facilitating innovation for global solutions.

Cleaner seas

Preventing contamination at sea

The Foru-Solution skimmer in testing

A third challenge for innovative companies is to prevent and clean up pollution at sea. The maritime sector also has a growing need for sustainability and is concerned about the environment. This is not just about cleaning up plastic or oil, but also about saving on fuel for vessels, which will become an increasing need for the maritime sector as a result of changing rules.

Cleaning up oil
Ninety percent of goods transport is by sea, and there are oil drillings at sea. Things do go wrong from time to time and oil can end up in the seawater. As this is bad for the environment and marine life, it is important that this oil is cleaned up quickly and properly. 

That is what Koos Tamminga of Foru-Solution works on. ‘There is a whole industry around cleaning up spilled oil in the sea. Generally there is very little innovation in this sector,’ said Koos Tamminga. According to him there are essentially two ways of removing oil - oil skimmers, where the oil sticks to a drum, disc or brush from which you then scrape the oil. The second way is capturing the oil layer from the water with weir skimmers, which are skimmers with an overflow edge. The first category has a low capacity and a relatively high oil recovery ratio and for the second category this is the other way around.

Robust, large capacity and flexible
Foru-Solution developed a skimmer that operates between the two existing concepts - the skimmer has an internal buoy, which means that oil can always flow into the device without needing the assistance of external buoys. ‘It is also robust and it has a high capacity. The device tracks the waves well, making it effective in capturing oil. It is also practical and convenient - when oil has been spilled it can be used immediately. An ideal product for organizations that are responsible for the coast and for cleaning seawater.’ Koos Tamminga realizes that the opportunities for this oil skimmer are much greater. ‘You could think of all manner of applications, for example removing duckweed or algae from water or removing sheen (a thin layer of oil) from surface water.’

Foru-Solution employees at work

Serving clients all over the world from the Northern Netherlands
Foru-Solution is located in the port of Harlingen in the north of the Netherlands. The north of the Netherlands was a conscious choice for Koos Tamminga. ‘I already worked in that region, and reorganizations meant that many people had to leave my former employer. Good employees who knew how to work hard. I wanted to do something to get skilled people who have their heart in the right place back to work.’

I wanted to do something to get skilled people who have their heart in the right place back to work.

Koos Tamminga, Technical Director of Foru-Solution

Fleet Cleaner
A company that has a completely different approach to cleaning the sea is Fleet Cleaner, founded by Alex Noordstrand and Cornelis de Vet. ‘It started as a dissertation when we studied at the Delft University of Technology. After our study we continued developing the product in a start-up.’ The result is a system that can clean a large seagoing vessel in one day whilst it is in port. A system that cleans the vessel and filters the wastewater immediately. ‘There are more of these types of systems, but ours does not work with propellers but with magnets. It means the Fleet Cleaner stays stuck to the vessel even in strong currents. It makes it easy to use in ports at the end of rivers, where you have to deal with strong currents.’ Not surprising that the Fleet Cleaner is used in large ports, such as Rotterdam and Antwerp.

Fleet Cleaner at work

Stronger rules, more economical shipping
Cleaning a vessel has an impact on its speed and its energy consumption. ‘Up to now this has not been that important for shipping,’ argued Alex Noordstrand, ‘because vessels run on heavy fuel oil. That is really cheap.’ That will have to change soon, because the use of heavy fuel oil will be banned as of next year. ‘In European waters, vessels will have to start using cleaner fuels. That is much more expensive, making fuel savings much more interesting all of a sudden.’

The Fleet Cleaner

According to Alex Noordstrand, this trend is common in shipping.  ‘Innovations are introduced slowly when there is no immediate need. Companies will only innovate when regulations become stricter and they start to feel the financial consequences.’ Regulations change extremely slowly in the maritime sector, as it concerns global decisions. ‘I think that now the rules are changing, there will be more need for innovations that save on energy,’ predicted Alex Noordstrand.

The TopDutch touch

Maritime sector in Northen Netherlands

Companies such as Solteq, REDstack, Foru-Solution and Fleet Cleaner started in the north of the Netherlands and most are still based there. Not just because the founders are Dutch: The TopDutch region offers many facilities for innovation. Facilities that lead these businesses, many of which took off as a start-up, to innovations with a global market. It means the Netherlands can stay in the global vanguard, including in maritime innovations.

The Foru-Solution team

Governments in the north of the Netherlands strive to develop the Netherlands into the European Water Technology Hub, with the WaterCampus in the north of the Netherlands as a physical crystallization point. The energy transition and digitalization are also high on the innovation agenda in the Netherlands. It means that in the north of the Netherlands subsidies are available to companies, including international companies, that can make a contribution to achieving those ambitions. Fleet Cleaner benefited from such subsidies, which was one of the reasons why this company located at WaterCampus in Leeuwarden when it was set up.

Another important benefit of the north of the Netherlands is the presence of research institutes that are prepared to cooperate and that make test sites available. The most important research institute in the area of water in Europe is Wetsus, based at the WaterCampus. Wetsus played an important role in the various innovations in the maritime sector, including the development of the products of Solteq and REDstack. The presence of pilot sites, such as the Living Lab at the Afsluitdijk, and pilot sites at water-treatment companies provide opportunities, including for the maritime sector.

Here we have many innovative companies that produce wonderful solutions. We don't see them as competition, in fact we simply enhance and strengthen each other.

Herre Rost van Tonningen, CEO of Solteq

Conquering the global market together
A final benefit of the north of the Netherlands is a strong network of companies in water technology. Local companies, each with their own expertise, are open to cooperation for the purpose of developing new innovations, whilst the Water Alliance also plays an important role. The Water Alliance maintains contacts with water companies and important market players all over the world on behalf of affiliated Dutch companies. It means TopDutch innovations do not remain in the Netherlands, but find their way to the global market. Whether it concerns dry areas that need drinking water, coastal areas where energy has to be generated, issues in terms of water treatment, northern Dutch companies are able to find their way to that global market.


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