Groningen has a reputation as a bastion of gas knowledge. This is thanks to the Gasunie Testing Laboratory that came to the city of Martin in 1968. With the Norwegian DNV as owner, the lab is now shifting its focus to green hydrogen.
For almost 55 years, research into the functioning and applications of natural gas has been carried out in an inconspicuous, austere building on the Energieweg in Groningen. The results of the researchers' exploratory work can be found in our homes and businesses. They made cooking and heating possible and took Dutch industry and horticulture further with their inventions. They solved environmental problems and made the Netherlands more energy efficient. The social impact of the lab has been very great," says Wim van Gemert, who worked there in the 1980s and 1990s.
The functioning of coal
The knowledge stronghold came to Groningen in 1968 as the Beproevingslaboratorium, the research department with 80 employees of Gasunie. It came from Schinnen in Limburg, where it had started as the centre that carried out research into the working of coal under the auspices of De Nederlandse Staatsmijnen, later DSM (Dutch State Mines). The lab has changed names and owners several times over the years. As a branch of the Norwegian research and classification group DNV, it is now preparing to move and to enter a new era, that of green hydrogen. At the end of this year, it will take up residence in the ultra-modern Plus Ultra business centre on the Zernike Campus with a hydrogen laboratory.
New agendas and themes
After the natural gas tour, now comes the hydrogen tour", says Johan Knijp about the new episode that has started for the researchers. He heads the Groningen DNV office. New agendas and new themes", he says, form the common thread in the history of the knowledge centre. Saturday 21 May there will be a reunion for former employees. On Friday 20 May, DNV is holding a symposium on the role and necessity of partnerships that will help to kick-start the hydrogen era, involving three organisations that have a link to the lab: Gasunie, GasTerra and the energy lab EnTranCe.
Knowledge and skills
What remains, says Knijp, is the in-depth knowledge. We can now use all our knowledge and expertise about natural gas for hydrogen. The aim is to use the infrastructure for natural gas as much as possible for hydrogen. Of course, it has a number of other properties than natural gas. We have to look at what kind of adjustments are needed for the pipelines, valves, membranes, pressure gauges and things like that." Wim van Gemert made his entrance at the lab in 1987. Back then - in the 1960s - the gas network in the Netherlands had already been laid in ten years, complete with connections to companies and homes. The Testing Laboratory developed the burners for the central heating boilers and cookers that ran on Groningen's low-calorific gas with its specific composition. The industry that later indulged in the high-calorific, differently composed gas from the small fields and from abroad, later had to be provided with different burners that worked on it.
Social and economic problems that frequently made the headlines at the time were solved at Groningen's Energieweg. Van Gemert: ,,In the 1970s, the oil crisis resulted in energy shortages. That's why we wanted to use the gas more economically. That's when the lab started to work on the high-efficiency central heating boiler. This technology was not developed in isolation in order to make a lot of money. All manufacturers of central heating boilers were allowed to take part in the research. That is what is known as open innovation. Van Gemert knows that the Gasunie management sometimes grumbled about the costs of the research. You might be talking about a couple of tonnes a year. But the social return was enormous. The boilers burned 20 per cent less gas. That's a total of 2 billion cubic metres per year.
Knijp: What's more, the technology gave us a boiler industry with international appeal. Foreign manufacturers ended up buying up a number of those Dutch companies." The cooperation with greenhouse horticulture gave the economy an enormous boost, Van Gemert knows. The introduction of combined heat and power reduced heating costs. The CO2 needed for fertilising tomatoes, for example, was extracted from the burnt gas. The innovations also provided the sector with savings that put it at a disadvantage to its competitors abroad. The glasshouse growers became global market leaders. At one point, they accounted for 15 per cent of the gross national product."
Tineke van der Meij, who currently works as an independent project manager and consultant at EnTranCe and elsewhere, worked at the lab in the 1990s on an environmental problem that was constantly in the news: acid rain, which destroyed entire forests. It was caused by the emission of so-called NOXs (nitrogen oxides) during gas combustion. Van der Meij: "Research has shown that the hotter the flame, the more NOXs are emitted. This was particularly the case in industry. That is why we looked for a burner with a lower flame temperature. Together with the manufacturers, we then worked on burners with more holes and slits. This worked better for some gases than for others. But we were able to help many manufacturers with it."
Van der Meij says there was also room for fundamental research. ,,It is important that you get that space. Long before the hype, some fifteen to twenty years ago, Gasunie Research carried out research into hydrogen. With a consortium we looked at the combustion and mixing possibilities. The parties who were working on it then are benefiting from it now." Van Gemert has always remained a warm advocate of open innovation, such as in the development of the hr boiler. Without sneaking around for one company or organisation, but for the benefit of society. He is considered the spiritual father of EnTranCe, where companies, researchers and students work together on energy innovations.
The search is now on for ways to produce green hydrogen on a large scale and affordably, and to develop a market for it. Wide-ranging cooperation will also be necessary to successfully roll out the energy transition, says Knijp. As the director of a commercial research institute, he faces a particular challenge in this respect. Knijp: ,,In the past at the Gasunie lab, you were all in the same boat. Now you have to deal with many more parties. Commercial companies will also have to cooperate in research instead of just competing. But how long can you work together if everyone has to earn a living? It's about awarding and trust. Fortunately, there is still enough of that, although everything has become more business-like.
From testing lab to DNV
Gasunie's research centre was opened in Groningen in 1968 as the Testing Laboratory. The name changed in 1968 to Gasunie Research, later Gasunie Engineering & Technology. The lab was taken over in 2009 by the testing institute KEMA. This in turn became the property of the Norwegian DNV in 2012. After the symposium on the future of research on Friday, there is a reunion today (Saturday 21 May) for all (former) employees of the lab. In addition to DNV, both meetings have three co-organisers: former owner Gasunie, which still works closely with the lab, the gas trading company GasTerra, which was split off from the gas company, and EnTrance. The energy lab arose from collaboration between Gasunie, the Hanzehogeschool Groningen and the University of Groningen on energy innovations under the leadership of Wim van Gemert.