EIRES 'Heroes like you'

Energy Heroes - Max Aerts

The theme of TU/e’s lustrum year, which marks the university’s 65th anniversary, is ‘Heroes like you.’  In keeping with this theme, EIRES publishes a series of interviews throughout the year with the motto ‘Energy Heroes.’ TU/e students, alumni and employees with proven track records in the field of energy research and innovation are given the floor to share their passion for energy research and innovation.

Max Aerts - Start-up

Department of Industrial Design


As a young boy he was convinced that he would become a dentist. But life had something different in store for Max Aerts. Unavoidably infected with his family’s entrepreneurial mindset, Aerts is now CEO of the successful energy technology company DENS, which works to replace current diesel powered machinery by sustainable alternatives.



Energetic entrepreneur

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That proverb pretty well sums up Max Aerts’ attitude. ‘I am dyslectic. At primary school, my teachers gave me the advice to go to a VMBO school. But since I wanted to become a dentist, I needed a VWO diploma. So from a young age I am used to having to prove myself.’ To his initial regret, he did not get selected for the dentistry program. ‘Since I liked working with my hands and building prototypes and stuff, my parents advised me to enroll in the Industrial Design program at TU/e instead.’

The enthusiastic businessman comes from a family of entrepreneurs, he tells, with parents, aunts and uncles managing their own companies. Once at TU/e, Aerts’ innate entrepreneurial mindset came to full fruition. Already in his second year, he started his first company Findur, based on an educational project on combining online and offline shopping. ‘I really like the project-based approach of Industrial Design’s educational program,’ Aerts says, ‘working on societal problems, building prototypes and commercializing them really suited me.’ And he turned out to be very good at it too. ‘I got excellent marks, and was asked to join the Honors program in my second year.’

Starting from catalyst

There he came into contact with the initial seedling for the technology he is now bringing to the market with DENS. Chemists at Eindhoven University of Technology had developed a catalyst that was able to very efficiently produce electricity from formic acid. Aerts was intrigued by the possibilities this technology offered, and decided to start a student team to demonstrate its potential, which was called team FAST (Formic Acid Sustainable Transportation).

The team built several small vehicles powered by sustainably formed formic acid, which they called hydrozine. A catalytic reaction transforms the hydrozine into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that subsequently can be used in a fuel cell to produce power. ‘And then VDL came along,’ Aerts continues his adventurous story. ‘They were very interested in our technology and challenged us to build a system that could power an entire bus.’ To him, the fact that a large company threw such a challenge at the team proved that their technology had real potential.

Plunge in

‘And that is where the beauty of such a student team comes in,’ Aerts says. ‘We stepped in with such naivety… we had to scale up our engine a thousand times, from 20 W to 20 kW, and also drive a bus with it. With my current experience, I know that is too much to take up. But we just plunged in and went for it.’ Eventually, the bus never drove. But the team did manage to build the required 20 kW system though, which no one had believed to be possible.

Aerts and his companion Tijn Swinkels decided to turn team FAST into  start-up company DENS. And then they got lucky. ‘As they say, luck is where preparation meets opportunity,’ Aerts teaches. ‘We had developed a pilot generator that was ready to be implemented. And then the nitrogen crisis hit.’ The construction industry urgently looked for more sustainable ways of working, and soon stumbled upon Aerts’ company DENS. From then on, the train really started moving. Multiple partnerships were established that enabled the company to conduct field tests for a myriad of applications. For example, at the moment DENS is installing a prototype system at a steel plant in Dunkirk. Their machine will be part of a circular system that captures the CO2 emitted by the plant, transforms that into Hydrozine, and uses the Hydrozine to provide onshore electricity for ships. ‘In principle, our technology can replace anything that is now driven by diesel,’ Aerts says. Currently the company is focusing on non-road mobile machinery, such as generators, caterpillars, and excavators.

Make lasting impact
Though with their company Aerts feels he is at the start of something big, he also already has a lot to look back on with pride. ‘We started out with a proof of concept of a catalyst and managed to turn that into a power system that we are now implementing at an industrial scale. And we did all of that within a mere six years! I am convinced that this technology can be a true gamechanger that will make a lasting impact. And that notion is what motivates me and my team to keep pushing boundaries every day.’

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Photo Left: Max Aerts and Tijn Swinkels  by Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie


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