Tag Archives: burn

A brewery in the Netherlands becomes the first iron-fueled factory in the world

A brewery in the Netherlands has become the first business in the world to use iron powder as fuel on an industrial scale.

Iron powder being burned in a combustion tube. Image credits Bart van Overbeeke / TU Eindhoven.

We tend to think of fire mostly as something that engulfs wood, coal, petrol, and other flammables. It’s practical to do so — those are the things we burn when we need something to burn. But from a chemical point of view, almost everything burns, given the right conditions — including iron.

The Swinkels Family Brewers in the Netherlands has become the first business to use iron as a fuel for industrial application. It worked together with the Metal Power Consortium and researchers at TU Eindhoven to install a cyclical iron fuel system (more on that shortly) at its Brewery Bavaria, which is able to heat up around 15 million glasses of beer a year.

Iron burn

“We are enormously proud to be the first company to test this new fuel on an industrial scale in order to help accelerate the energy transition,” said Peer Swinkels, CEO of Royal Swinkels Family Brewers. “As a family business, we invest in a sustainable and circular economy because we think in terms of generations, not years.”

“We combine this way of thinking with high-quality knowledge in the collaboration with the Metal Power Consortium. Through this innovative technology, we want to make our brewing process less dependent on fossil fuels. We will continue to invest in this innovation.”

Industries typically rely on fossil fuels for all their heat-intensive needs, since these hold a whole lot of energy in a very dense package. Finely-ground iron can serve the same purpose, however. In such a form and at high temperatures, iron burns easily.

Burning is the physical manifestation of a chemical reaction known as oxidation, and we perceive the energy given off by this reaction as light and heat. When iron is burned this way, there is no output of carbon dioxide (since there’s no carbon in iron). The only product is rust. The best part is that this rust, which is basically just iron oxide, can then be turned back into plain iron with the simple application of an electrical current.

In essence, if you use energy from solar, wind, or other clean sources, you can use iron filings as a sort of clean battery that charges with electricity and outputs heat — which is neat!

Other advantages of this system include how cheap and abundant iron is, how easy it is to transport (it doesn’t need to be cooled like hydrogen, for example), its high energy density, and the high temperatures it can output (up to 1,800 °C / 3,272 °F). It also doesn’t spoil and won’t lose its properties even if stored for a long time.

The cyclical iron system installed at Brewery Bavaria handles both the burning and recharging phases of the process. Depending on how energy is fed back into the used iron, it can store up to 80% of the energy input back into the iron fuel, which is comparable to the efficiencies of modern hydrogen-splitting techniques.

“While we’re proud of this huge milestone, we also look at the future,” says Chan Botter, who leads student team SOLID at TU Eindhoven, a group dedicated to the advancement of metal fuels.

“There’s already a follow-up project which aims to realize a 1-MW system in which we also work on the technical improvement of the system. We’re also making plans for a 10-MW system that should be ready in 2024. Our ambition is to convert the first coal-fired power plants into sustainable iron fuel plants by 2030.”

The system Botter talks about would have a theoretical efficiency of around 40%, which isn’t great, but it could prove to be a convenient and flexible way of storing energy, either for later use or for transport to another site. An advantage of this approach would be that our current energy-generation infrastructure can be adapted to use iron quite easily (as all that is changed is the type of fuel used).

It’s not yet clear if it would be economically-viable, but it’s definitely a very exciting idea — at least, I think it is. There’s also something very cool about the idea of burning iron for power.

Here’s a video detailing how the technology would work from TU Eindhoven:

Canadian researchers develop hand-held skin printer to treat burn patients

Researchers from the University of Toronto (UoT) Engineering and Sunnybrook Hospital, Canada, have developed a new 3D printer that can create sheets of skin to cover large burns and accelerate the healing process.

A simple schematic detailing the use (a) and general structure of the device (b).
Image credits Richard Y Cheng et al., (2020), Biofab.

Nobody likes to get burned — literally and figuratively. So a team of Canadian researchers has developed a handy new tool to take care of our literal burns. This hand-held 3D printer churns out stripes of biomaterial meant to cover burn wounds, promote healing, and reduce scarring. The bio-ink it uses is based on mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs), a type of stem cell that differentiates into specialized roles depending on their environment.

Don’t feel the burn

“Previously, we proved that we could deposit cells onto a burn, but there wasn’t any proof that there were any wound-healing benefits — now we’ve demonstrated that,” says Axel Guenther, an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the UoT and the study’s corresponding author.

The team unveiled their first prototype of the printer in 2018. It was quite the novel gadget at the time, the first of its kind to form tissues on-site, deposit them, and have them set in place in under two minutes.

Since then, the team has redesigned the printer 10 times, in an effort to make it more user-friendly and to tailor it to the requirements of an operating room. The current iteration of the design includes a single-use microfluidic printhead (to ensure the part is always sterile), and a soft wheel that’s used to flatten the material and tailor it to wounds of different shapes and sizes.

The MSCs in the ink are intended to promote regeneration and reduce scarring, the team explains. In broad lines, the authors explain, the method is similar to skin grafting, but it doesn’t require for healthy skin to be transplanted from other areas of the patient’s body — it’s printed on the spot. This is especially useful in the case of large burns, they add.

“With big burns, you don’t have sufficient healthy skin available, which could lead to patient deaths,” says Dr. Marc Jeschke, director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre and study co-author.

The team tested their printer in collaboration with the Ross Tilley Burn Centre and the Sunnybrook Hospital, successfully using the device to treat full-thickness wounds. Such burn wounds involve the destruction of both layers of the skin and often cover a significant portion of the body. While the results were encouraging, the team wants to further refine their printer and improve its ability to prevent scarring.

“Our main focus moving forward will be on the in-vivo side,” explains study leader Richard Cheng, a teaching assistant at the UoT.

“Once it’s used in an operating room, I think this printer will be a game changer in saving lives. With a device like this, it could change the entirety of how we practice burn and trauma care,” adds Jeschke.

The paper “Handheld instrument for wound-conformal delivery of skin precursor sheets improves healing in full-thickness burns” has been published in the journal Biofabrication.

Veterinarians treat burned bears with fish skin — and it seems to be working

Vets from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have used an unusual treatment for two bears and one cougar suffering from severe burn wounds: fish skin.

Tilapia skin was wrapped around the burned areas. Image credits: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

In December 2017, the Thomas Fire ravaged through California, blazing approximately 281,893 acres (114,078 hectares). It was the largest wildfire in modern California history.

It destroyed over 1,000 buildings, forced 100,000 people to evacuate, and was only put out on January 12, 2018. It claimed at least 15 lives, but humans weren’t the only ones to suffer — wildlife was even more severely affected.

Among the animal victims of the fire were two adult bears (one of which was pregnant) and a 5-month-old cougar from Los Padres National Forest. The bears had third-degree burns on their paws — one of them was so badly injured it couldn’t even stand. Instead of treating them with the conventional bandages, veterinarians went for a different option: fish skin.

As strange as it seems, fish skin (tilapia in particular) has been used to treat burns before, on humans. Brazilian doctors have used fish skin to treat burn victims, due to a shortage of transfer collagen, which is the standard treatment. The doctors then reported that the tilapia skin is very rich in collagen proteins which help with the skin healing and scarring process. The treatment shows promise and is now undergoing clinical trials. But it wasn’t just the desire to try a new, unusual treatment — vets had several reasons why they opted for tilapia skin instead of bandages.

For starters, working with bears and cougars, especially when they’re injured, is no easy feat. Normally, they’re sedated for medical procedures, but you can only sedate them so many times, and bandages need to be changed regularly. Additionally, putting pills in their food is also not very effective because there’s a good chance they just won’t eat it. To make matters even worse, the bears and the cougar would have almost certainly chewed through their bandages, and the textile could clog their intestines. Bandages just wouldn’t do, the vets quickly understood. That’s when they turned to Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Peyton typically works with domestic animals, but he has a particular interest in burns. He created a homemade burn salve for the bears’ paws and a process for sterilizing tilapia skin. The technique is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States and had not been tried on veterinary patients. However, it’s not like they had many other choices.

To keep the tilapia skin on the burns, Peyton cut pieces exactly matching the size of their paws, and then sutured them over the wounds while the bear was under anesthesia. Additional temporary wrappings, including rice paper and corn husks, were added, with the intention of stretching out the amount of time it would take for the animal to chew down to the fish skin bandage. All these materials are safe to eat for the animals.

Rice paper and corn husks were added to make it harder for the bears to chew through their bandages. Image credits: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

“We expected the outer wrapping to eventually come off, but we hoped the tilapia would keep steady pressure on the wounds and serve as an artificial skin long enough to speed healing of the wounds underneath,” Peyton said.

Lastly, she also used acupuncture to aid the bear with pain management, a highly controversial technique. The validity of veterinary acupuncture has not yet been thoroughly proven, as systematic reviews in 2001, 2006, and 2009 all found insufficient evidence to support or disprove its efficiency. However, both the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) issued joint guidelines for the management of pain in cats and dogs, citing a “solid and still growing body of evidence for the use of acupuncture for the treatment of pain in veterinary medicine to the extent that it is now an accepted treatment modality for painful animals.”

Whether or not the acupuncture worked, the tilapia bandages seemed to do wonders, and this made a huge difference. An ultrasound revealed that one of the bears was pregnant, which meant that she needed to be reintroduced to the wild as soon as possible.

“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” Clifford said. “We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”

The procedure was hailed a success and the bears were reintroduced into the wild, into a new habitat. Image credits: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Thankfully, aided by the innovative bandages, the healing process was quick enough to facilitate their release into the wild. A new habitat was found for them (as their old one had burned down). The cougar, which was younger and also had lighter burns, was also reintroduced to the wild. The entire project was hailed a success.

This effort could be even more significant in the future. As temperatures continues to rise and drought becomes more and more common in California, wildfires will also likely become more and more common.

“This treatment has the potential to be used successfully on all kind of burn patients, both domestic and wild,” said Dr. Deana Clifford, acting manager of the Wildlife Investigations Lab in Rancho, who first handled the bears.

“For us, at the Wildlife Investigations Lab, it’s been an invaluable experience because California’s changing climate means that we’re likely to see more wild animals impacted by catastrophic wildfires. By better understanding what resources are needed to care for injured wildlife and what treatment techniques increase healing speed, we can make the most informed treatment decisions, reduce animals’ time in captivity and provide guidance to other facilities caring for burned animals.”