INTERVIEW

Green carpet to the future: zepp.solutions

HYDROGEN PIONEERS: ‘THE PORT IS BRIMMING WITH POTENTIAL’

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Take five hydrogen experts with a passion for racing cars and innovation. Then unleash them in the port of Rotterdam. The result? The world’s first hydrogen-powered terminal tractor. ‘The sky’s the limit: you can produce all sorts of vehicles that run on hydrogen, with zero carbon emissions.’ The tech start-up zepp.solutions develops hydrogen and fuel cell systems for a variety of applications. We talk with co-founder Jan Bot about the sustainable application of hydrogen technology.

At zepp.solutions, they believe that hydrogen will play a decisive role in the transformation of the traffic, transport and maritime sectors. Bot: ‘We want to apply our way of thinking – what we know and what we can do – on a large scale to achieve the energy transition. Our all-in-one modules enable us to integrate hydrogen in a huge range of applications. We don’t just develop the hydrogen system, but also handle integration and production. Our aim is to ensure that our hydrogen systems are as easy to integrate as a diesel-powered engine.’

Watch the video to see how zepp.solutions started.

The genesis of zepp.solutions is quite interesting. Bot: ‘I started racing at a very early age: as a young boy I was already interested in racing cars and I wanted to become an inventor. At secondary school, I read in Technisch Weekblad about a racing team that had been set up at Delft University of Technology. They were doing such ground-breaking work – I was really excited. I ended up studying Technical Geosciences: I was interested in the energy transition and wanted to know more about the raw materials you need to produce batteries, for example. In 2012, I joined the Delft racing team as a driver and became increasingly convinced of the potential of hydrogen. We were a group of five friends in the team, each with a real passion for this area. We increasingly talked about the commercial potential of the knowledge we had gained in the team and at university.’

The only emissions are water vapour

Since 2012, Delft’s racing team has been driving full-scale racing cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell system. Bot: ‘A fuel cell can convert the chemical energy stored in gaseous hydrogen and oxygen into useful electric energy. The hydrogen is stored in a tank, while the oxygen is taken from the ambient air. The big advantage of this alternative energy carrier is that the vehicle doesn’t release any harmful substances: the only thing emitted is water vapour. What’s more, converting hydrogen into electric power is more efficient than burning fossil fuels in a combustion engine.’

The team went on to set a number of world records: in 2015, world-class driver Jan Lammers achieved a new record time for hydrogen cars on the Nürburgring. Two years later, the team took part in an official racing competition on the Assen circuit, with Bot behind the wheel. ‘We came in last, but we were beside ourselves with joy. We were the first team in the world to finish an entire race – in this case one lasting a full hour – in a hydrogen-powered car.’

New dimension in energy

In 2017, the five team members decide to turn the knowledge they had gained in the field of hydrogen into a business and founded zepp.solutions. Bot: ‘At that point, there weren’t that many people who recognised all the things you can do with hydrogen. As a fuel, diesel has been around for over a century. It’s used in all sorts of vehicles, but it’s very polluting.’

To win over potential clients, the five pioneers decided first to build a vehicle running entirely on hydrogen.

We tried to determine which sectors would benefit most from using hydrogen. We looked for applications that run continuously, consume a lot of energy and are still powered mainly by diesel right now.

This is how the Delft boffins ultimately teamed up with Terberg Benschop, a Dutch truck manufacturer and supplier of specialised industrial vehicles. Among other things, Terberg makes tractors for container terminals, which are used to transport containers between the gantry cranes and the storage sites. Bot: ‘Terberg was interested in what we had to say. They recognise the advantages and cater to a large market. And they want to promote sustainability too. Working with their engineers, we developed the world’s first hydrogen-powered tractor.’

Milestone

This first tractor was a milestone for the entire team. Bot: ‘We spent three years working towards that moment. Some of us spent a lot of that time tinkering with the mechanical aspects, while others worked on the software. To see all these separate efforts finally come together in a real-life end result was a very special experience.’

As of October 2020, the tractor can be found working at a terminal in Rotterdam’s Waalhaven area. Bot: ‘It can be used for the same work as a diesel tractor. It has the same tractive power, but without carbon emissions – and without the constant noise produced by combustion engines. And you can refuel it a lot faster than battery-powered alternatives: it only takes a few minutes to fill up. We’re still in the test phase right now, but the vehicle is already participating in the terminal’s regular operations, allowing us to collect as much data as possible. Terberg’s ultimate objective is to take the tractor into production. We’ll be handling the series production of the fuel cell system.’

Alternative to battery

Bot: ‘We use hydrogen as an energy carrier – you could see it as an alternative to a battery. One of the big advantages over a battery system is that a hydrogen-powered vehicle can be refuelled within the space of three minutes, meaning it isn’t standing idle at a charge point for a long time. In addition, hydrogen systems are a lot lighter, and the vehicle can carry more energy – which translates into more kilometres. That makes hydrogen systems particularly interesting for applications that consume a lot of power, and where standing idle costs money, such as trucks, vans and other commercial vehicles and vessels.’

Filled with opportunities

The zepp.solutions team has now grown from its initial five, to thirteen members. They’re a varied bunch: the oldest member is 49, Bot is 29 and the youngest is 23. ‘At lunchtime, we’re always talking about how things work: we all share a passion for technology. We all come from slightly different backgrounds, with our own areas of expertise: that’s what makes us so strong.’

For zepp.solutions’ founders and team members, sustainability isn’t a question but a given. Bot: ‘Climate change is real: it’s here – in fact, it’s been here for some time. We also know that CO2 plays a major role in this process, and that we need to switch to power from renewable sources such as wind, hydropower, solar and heat. We’re seeing growing demand for zero emission solutions. And when we drive through the port, it’s filled with opportunities: all sorts of applications that could be switched to hydrogen. Terminal tractors, trucks but also larger and smaller vessels. At zepp.solutions, we have the knowledge and skills to help clients grasp these opportunities and successfully make this transition.’

We’re currently running a pilot project with Watertaxi Rotterdam and a number of other companies. The first hydrogen-powered water taxi will enter service in the course of 2021. We’ll be supplying the hydrogen-electric power train and the on-board hydrogen storage system. The boat also needs to refuel, of course. The Port Authority is looking for a suitable refuelling location together with the consortium.

 

Hydrogen infrastructure

Bot is pleased with the Port Authority as a partner. ‘People in Rotterdam are open to innovation and prepared to capitalise on opportunities that present themselves. The supply of wind and solar power is growing every year, and hydrogen will prove the key to making renewable energy even bigger across Europe. We’re excited about the current preparations for a new hydrogen ‘backbone’ for the region. This main pipeline can be used to transport green and blue hydrogen and connect suppliers and users. And this will create a huge range of opportunities for zepp.solutions. Our dream is to become one of the European market leaders in fuel cell systems.’

Does Bot have any tips he’d like to share with other entrepreneurs? ‘Definitely: if you’re certain that you’re on the right track, don’t let others discourage you: hang in there. And if you want to do something with hydrogen: call us! We can tell you more about the possibilities and what you need to keep an eye on. We really take our clients by the hand in this area. And we can go on to supply the required technology. That’s what really sets us apart: the fact that we produce these solutions ourselves.’

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