Groningen-based Albatrozz, which develops technology for wind turbines, has been nominated for the Rabobank Sustainable Innovation Award. Time to catch up with founders Eize Stamhuis and Elzo de Lange.
Eize: “I’ve always been inspired by nature, and for instance by big birds like the albatross. albatrosses have a wingspan of two to three metres. They are meant to float. During the albatross’s landing its wings oscillate. This enables albatrosses to float with their heavy bodies and to land safely when the wind speed is low. It made me wonder what would happen if you would apply this oscillating principle to the blades of a wind turbine. We tested this in a wind tunnel, and it turned out that there was an increase of about 25 to 30% in terms of the turbine’s efficiency. However, it takes a lot of energy to oscillate an entire blade, and this would possibly reduce our gain. So instead of oscillating the entire blade I came up with the idea to oscillate only part of the blade. We also tested this principle and the results turned out to be even better than expected!
I instantly knew that we were on to something and that we needed to protect this invention! It was at this point that I contacted Business Generation Groningen. Through them I met Ton Linssen, Patent Information Specialist at the RUG. He checked whether this invention was new and if there could possibly be a need for it. Our invention ticked both these boxes and a patent application was filed. Next, Business Generator Groningen went looking for market participants and that’s when Elzo joined the team.”
Elzo: “I am the owner of a consultancy, and we support both information-intensive start-ups as well as big enterprises in dealing with valorisation and innovation issues. Business Generator Groningen contacted me around that time. They told me that they had an interesting patent in their portfolio, but that they had trouble marketing it due to its specific character. It did not take long before I contacted Eize, and I instantly got excited to be be part of the team this time! I was ready to go for it with Eize and Geert van Ek, who is actively involved in the wind sector. We instantly clicked.”
Eize: “That’s true. And that click is still there. We respect each other and when we have to get things done, the right person always steps up. I always say: if it works out, this success is the result of our group”.
Elzo: We immediately started testing our concept within the market. We visited wind turbine engineers. We realised soon enough that they were on a different page regarding innovation. To them, more wind energy was a matter of bigger turbines and bigger farms. And then we came along and suggested to approach things differently, more complex in a way. That was tricky. We were on a different track, and we were not received with a standing ovation so to say. However, people wére excited and intrigued. All in all, our visits were an encouragement to our partnership.
We came up with the name ‘Albatrozz’, we created a logo and a video. We went to the WindDays 2019. The entire wind sector gathered at this event, wind farm owners, turbine engineers, project developers, financial investors, and the authorities. And we were standing there in the start-up area, like a group of Gyro Gearlooses. But something díd happen that day! We managed to connect with the right people, and they really got excited.
In the following weeks, we talked to leading wind turbine engineers. What they were actually saying was: “Very interesting, but show us… Go to a field and prove it.” This is how we came up with the idea for a pilot. We spent a lot of time creating this pilot, because we wanted to make sure that what we were about to try out would be representative. Through our connections we got in touch with a wind farm owner who was willing to let us use his location for our pilot. We felt we were on a roll, financing looked promising, but then covid happened. All our investors immediately hit the brakes.”
Eize: “That was quite disappointing. But covid couldn’t stop us and afterwards actually turned out to be ‘a blessing in disguise’. We used this time to work on complex simulations. That was good because it turned out that with the oscillating part we had in mind, it would be difficult to meet safety standards. We then refined our design with oscillating parts. These parts turned out to be safer, they weigh a lot less and take less energy. So, the concept was still there, but we have completely revised our design.
Elzo: “Yes, looking back on it now, that time was not so bad. Our limited budget forced us to be creative and to achieve maximum results.
Eize: “The Albatross principle can be applied at low wind speeds. At force five or more, a regular wind turbine is efficient, but at a lower wind speed the turbine turns off. The problem is that 80% or 90% of our time, we only have force five or less and regular wind turbines do not work properly.”
Elzo: “True. Wind speed decreases as a result of climate change. We see that all around the world. This is called Global Terrestrial Stilling. On average, this results in the profits of wind farms to be 10 – 16% below estimate. That is one issue. The second issue is congestion. In other words, producing a lot of energy the moment there is a lot of energy. When there is a lot of wind, regular windmills produce a lot of energy. But we cannot store this energy because the energy network is already congested. This is also the reason why new wind farms cannot be connected. There are no such congestion problems with Albatrozz. In fact, we can supply energy at low wind speeds, when other companies cannot. Only when there is very little production do we start to produce. So, our wind turbine starts rotating sooner and more often. You cannot feel force 1. But then we still supply energy. We literally fill a gap in the market right now.”
Eize: “I would like to add ‘sustainability’. With our Albatrozz technology we ‘renovate’ existing wind turbines by adding new blades to them to prevent them from being dismissed after ten years. I think the Rabobank was attracted to that too.”
Elzo: “A successful pilot! We have a location and a wind turbine, so we are ready to test. The blades have been modified and they are now going through a safety check. We hope to install the new blades on the turbine before summer and then there will be four seasons of testing. Our wind turbine is located right next to a regular turbine with regular blades. Perfect, because this enables us to collect performance data from both wind turbines under the exact same circumstances. When the results are positive, we will start a pilot of retrofitting existing turbines and we might even apply our Albatrozz technology to new turbines.
In the meantime, we involve our market participants in everything we go through in terms of development. We for instance had a meeting with the industry recently, participants like Siemens, Gamesa, Eneco, Pure Energie, RWE and agents from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy and The Netherlands Enterprise Agency. We realise that a large group wants to be informed and involved. That is wonderful to see. We are also on LinkedIn. We do everything to keep this fire burning.”
Eize: “I would urge researchers who want to valorise to find support! Find someone with the proper knowledge to support you. Not a scientist, but someone who knows about the market, someone who knows what is needed. We scientists need support with this step towards the market or it is very likely that it just won’t happen. Business Generator Groningen can fulfil that role or perhaps another entrepreneur who has done this before. An excellent researcher is not necessarily an excellent valorisator. More often he or she is not actually, and we should not try to achieve that.
Eize: “It is kind of my childhood dream to be honest. I am Head of the Energy and Sustainability faculty. When I ask my students why they chose to study here, they often respond by saying that they “want to make the world a little better”. That gives me goosebumps. They are deeply motivated and so am I. It is just great to see my invention come to life. And besides that, I am just deeply curious. That is a huge drive for me.”
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“I would urge researchers who want to valorise to find support! An excellent researcher is not necessarily an excellent valorisator. More often he or she is not actually, and we should not try to achieve that.”
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