Alumnus Henk Arntz has big ambitions in sustainability
Suncom Energy, the startup created by Mechanical Engineering alumnus Henk Arntz, is making quite a name for itself as it boosts industry's sustainability.
Recently, Henk Arntz, CEO of Suncom Energy, marched away with the Industry Innovators Award 2022, having won both the jury prize and the audience prize. He also had the opportunity to pitch his idea during the Dragons' Den of Transition. The startup founded by Arntz, alumnus of the department of Mechanical Engineering, is regarded as a promising agent for change as the industrial sector moves towards sustainability. He wants to build the Netherlands' first concentrated solar thermal energy storage facility, using compact parabolic mirrors to supply renewable heat 24/7 to bakeries, glasshouses and saunas.
With two patents in the bag, these recent innovation awards, and ever more platforms from which to spread its word, the startup Suncom Energy is evidently flourishing. Its workforce, continuing to expand and installed in new office premises in Houten, is tackling the question of how concentrated solar energy can make industry more sustainable. Suncom Energy founder Henk Arntz, TU/e alumnus and entrepreneur through and through, hasn't a shred of doubt about the company's ambitious plans. He wants to build a demo installation in a glasshouse or farm next year before further commercializing Suncom's innovative technology.
Mirrors covering half a soccer pitch
The key players at Suncom Energy are the parabolic mirrors that heat a liquid by capturing and concentrating sunlight, explains Arntz, his enthusiasm vibrant. Forget the standard giant format of 7x100 meter, Suncom has made its mirrors more compact; so that the individual modules now fit into a shipping container. Whereas today's solar thermal power plants based on high-temperature concentrated solar power (CSP) are large-scale installations, Suncom aims to produce smaller and therefore cheaper installations. “We want to move away from long rows of mirrors in the desert to filling just half a soccer pitch,” says Arntz.
The compact mirrors are uniquely able to heat liquids to temperatures around 500 degrees Celsius. They've got his scouting past to thank for this, Arntz admits with a smile. “I'm sure you've tried using a magnifying glass to start a campfire. The thing to remember is the smaller the focal point, the greater the heat. By using a square rather than a circular surface, we saw that the concentration of sunlight could be increased by up to 50 percent. So now in the collector we use square ducts instead of tubular ones. As a result, the liquid being pumped through them can reach a temperature of 500 degrees Celsius, which makes this system appealing to industry.”
Our system can supply renewable heat and electricity 24 hours a day.
Henk Arntz, CEO Suncom and Mechanical Engineering alumnus
“Not only can we use this technology in district heating systems and to heat glasshouses and food processing plants, the heat can also be converted into electricity. And this means the system can supply renewable heat and electricity 24 hours a day.”
The timing of Suncom's win at the Industry Innovators Award couldn't be better as, thanks to several other investments, the business is now ready to take the step towards industrial application. “Companies are enthusiastic.” Arntz recaps the advantages of ‘their’ solar thermal energy. “Our technology is about half the price of current solar panels and needs 40 percent less land, and in our production process we're using only recyclable or non-scarce raw materials.”
Not, it should be said, that this is Arntz's first run at setting up a business and making a success of it. Back when he was studying Mechanical Engineering, he found himself stranded in a snowbound train and started sketching. The creative juices began to flow, and eventually he approached the operational director of Schiphol to pitch his idea: an innovative way to clear snow from airport platforms.
His efforts gained him a master's internship and later, with his degree completed, Arntz started his first company, Snocom. His plans for a snow remover came to fruition: using a special technique, the Snowcuber can compress a hundred cubic meters of fresh snow into a dump truck load of 18 cubic meters. Purchasers include Schiphol, Paris and Helsinki.
His innovative way of thinking caught people's attention, and won him the ASML Young Talent Award in 2015. A remarkable period, Arntz recalls. “On a small airfield in Switzerland we were able to put our prototypes through their paces. Investors thought we had promise and so, in time, my sketch became a machine. And the Snowcuber is still selling well; a city model to keep the streets of Helsinki clear of snow was bought only last week.”
Arntz is no longer personally involved with Snocom – in 2018 he sold his company to a supplier. Although he was ready for some downtime after six rollercoaster years, after a short sabbatical he was itching to get back to work.
Entrepreneur to the core
“Only the other day my mom had me take a look at a personality test, something I'd done midway through high school. ‘Likes to build physical things, enjoys nature, is a realist and entrepreneur.’ So I've had my entrepreneurial spirit from an early age. After Snocom I spent a short while working in consultancy to broaden my horizons, but I much prefer being my own boss.”
The TU/e connection figures prominently in his team at Suncom Energy; his partner Wout Gubbels, who was also involved in Snocom, is a former fellow student. “I have a lot of contact with people I was at TU/e with, people from all walks of life. People fan out in all directions, find new jobs or start companies – but there's always something you have in common.”
It'd be great to see a cooperative alliance with TU/e come about.
Henk Arntz, CEO Suncom and Mechanical Engineering alumnus
“The connections with professors we knew when we were students are also valuable. It'd be great to see a cooperative alliance come about as a result of these links. Whenever we need any product development work done, we have to go to our partner in Spain. We're very open to having research partners based in the Netherlands.” Likewise, TU/e students looking for a challenging internship or first job are always welcome to get in touch with him, Arntz mentions as our interview comes to a close.
Less snow, more sun
With the small-scale solar power installations he has developed, Arntz has found his market. As he points out, while he looks back on Snocom as an almighty adventure, his current business with its emphasis on sustainability gives him just that little bit more satisfaction. “'Less snow, more sun' has turned out well for me. I can't say it often enough: do something you enjoy and that you're committed to.
Whenever you can turn your hobby into your work, you'll get out of bed with a smile on your face, and go to bed smiling. If I can do this until I retire, I'll be more than happy.” Having said that, he reluctantly admits that just to be on the safe side, he has registered a couple of ‘.com’ domain names. After all, when you're an entrepreneur to the core, you never know what the future may hold.
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