Nieuws - 27 januari 2011

Leeuwarden's secret recipe

Wetsus, Leeuwarden's top institute for water technology, is growing exponentially. Wageningen director Cees Buisman knows why: the inspiring academic environment.

Cees Buisman
It is a little known but highly promising method of generating electricity: blue energy. Wetsus researcher Michel Saakes explains how it works. He opens a few taps on a demonstration contraption, causing salt and fresh water to pour into a square Plexiglas container. Almost at once the propeller on the contraption begins to turn energetically. Because inside the container is an electric cell, the generator of the system, explains Saakes. The cell is stuffed full of membranes through which the salt and fresh water pour through the cell in turns. 'Seawater contains many dissolved salts, fresh water far fewer', says the researcher, 'That difference in concentrations can be converted into electricity and is the basis for what we call blue energy.' For Wetsus a project of this sort is a nice little earner. Last year, European grants to the tune of millions of Euros were spent on the project and what is more: companies are queuing up for it.
Company financing
Wetsus develops innovative technologies in the field of water technology, and expressly seeks partnerships with the business world. Young scientists from Wageningen UR and more than ten other institutions set to work on these research projects together with people from the participating companies. Going against the economic tide, Wetsus's research budget grew in the last two years from nine to fifteen million euros, while the number of projects it is running went from 60 to almost 100. This growth is largely thanks to private funding: the number of participating companies went up from 66 to 80. This has put Wetsus firmly on the map as a regional knowledge centre, as is clear from the attention it is getting from regional governments in the north. At the end of last year the Collaboration North Netherlands made it known that it wished to invest 6.8 million in a new Water Campus in Leeuwarden, with a full half of the space going to Wetsus. The institute is expected to move in 2014.

Cream of the Wetsus crop The research programme at Wetsus is subdivided into 17 different research themes. The cream of the crop include energy generation from the mix of salt and fresh water, microbial fuel cells, harvesting fresh water from seawater (desalination) and a range of ways of purifying waste water. Within each of these themes there are around 10 research projects in which companies and institutions can participate.

Bringing disciplines together
The secret? An inspiring environment in which PhD researchers from various disciplines and people from the business world share their knowledge. That is according to Cees Buisman, research director at Wetsus and also professor of environmental technology at Wageningen. 'Take the microbial fuel cell. This needs input from microbiologists, membrane technologists and electrochemists. Wetsus is in a position to bring these disciplines together. This makes our institute a frontrunner in the field of fuel cells.'
Environmental technologist Bert Hamelers is lectures at Wageningen UR and is also involved in work on blue energy. He confirms that the mix of knowledge at Wetsus creates a fertile research environment. 'Environmental technologists from Wageningen and membrane technologists from Twente meet up at Wetsus', he explains. 'From such different backgrounds you get different perspectives on problems, and views from different subject areas come together here. This make is possible to work in a truly interdisiplinary way.' He sees the involvement of the business world as a real advantage. Hamelers: 'Companies are quick to pose the question, 'Is it really useful, what we are doing?' This sharpens up the discussion over the usefulness or necessity of a concept, and of its added value.'

Advance towards the EU
Companies currently pay about 3.5 million euros to take part in the research, says Buisman. That is one quarter of the budget. Half of the budget comes from the government, while the final quarter is paid for by knowledge institutions in the form of payment for the supervision of their PhD students. Buisman: 'This means we have a lot of money, relatively.' And that of course makes Wetsus an interesting partner for Wageningen UR, now it having to tighten its belt. Professor of Bioprocesstechnology Rene Wijffels agrees. He ended up at Wetsus with his algae research, which now has 14 companies on board. He is quite convinced that no other organization could have offered him what Wetsus could.
But he does have some doubts about the collaboration too. 'I would rather have an integrated group in Wageningen. They are on a bit of an island up there. To me, integration in the whole group is important, and there is less of that like this.' There are organizational disadvantages too. 'Sometimes I pay overheads to both Wetsus and to Wageningen UR. So financially these are not always attractive projects.'
Attractive or not, Wetsus' star continues to rise. Besides the rising turnover and activities in the Netherlands, Buisman is looking across the border too.' We want to link EU projects to research topics and interest EU companies in our research.' This process too could be of great interest to the international-minded Wageningen UR, which is getting less and less funding from the national government.
The propeller on the demonstration apparatus has stopped turning. The reservoirs for salt and fresh water are empty. What remains is a rub of 'waste': brackish water. If the experiment is scaled up this can be emptied into the Waddenzee without problems, or into a specially built dam for brackish water. This would create a brackish zone, where seagrass could grow, and so energy generation could go hand-in-hand with nature development.