Students behind international patent for enviromentally friendly fertiliser
– Published 22 November 2011
Earlier in the autumn, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of artificial fertiliser, the Dutch company StamiCarbon, published a new international patent for a more environmentally friendly and effective production technique. This would perhaps not be very remarkable, but for the fact that five students at Lund University's Faculty of Engineering are behind the invention.
The story began in spring 2009. Frida Ojala, Johanna Eliasson, Ylva Eriksson, David Holmström and Filip Nilsson, students of Chemical Engineering and Environmental Engineering, found themselves working in the same group for a project on a course on feasibility studies. Their supervisors were Hans Karlsson, Professor of Chemical Engineering and course coordinator, and researcher Christian Hultenberg, also from Chemical Engineering.
The previous year, Hans Karlsson had changed the design of the project. By involving Sigvald Harryson – entrepreneur, participant in the reality television series Robinson and Reader in Economic Research at the School of Economics and Management – the teaching had been remodelled in accordance with Harryson’s methodology on “collaborative university competitions”, in which students get to tackle real business problems.
To begin with, the student groups brainstorm possible solutions. During the process, the groups give one another feedback and at the end of the semester the company appoints a winner. So the students get to both collaborate and compete. In order to increase the exchange of ideas, students from other universities are also involved; this time round a group from KTH took part. The final is usually held at Sigvald Harryson’s own conference facility on Sturkö in Blekinge archipelago.
“Ten years ago, I started my own business in order to fully focus on this idea. Nowadays I get contacted by world-leading companies”, he says, explaining that he has been refining his method since the mid-1990s, when he worked for various American consultancy firms.
Sigvald Harryson praises the work of the LTH students.
“You have to bear in mind that StamiCarbon was already a global leader with its equipment. The students nonetheless succeeded in rethinking the entire process and reducing the ammonia emissions by 90 per cent!”
Frida Ojala, one of the students who is now a doctoral student in Chemical Engineering, thinks it was good that she and her coursemates did not know a lot about StamiCarbon’s field of activity.
“That made it easier for us to ‘think outside the box’. To begin with, it didn’t seem as though the company had much faith in our idea”, she says.
What the students came up with, and which the patent now covers, is a new process to capture harmful substances released when artificial fertiliser is manufactured. Besides the fact that the number of particles released that can cause environmental damage is reduced to almost zero with the method, the particles can be reused so that more fertiliser can be produced.
“We used active carbon and a type of filter that is usually used in the manufacture of powdered milk. The best thing about it is that it forms its own filter cake that can be knocked off at regular intervals and reused. Normal filters have to be changed often, so this is an easier solution”, says Frida Ojala.
It is not entirely certain that StamiCarbon will put the patented invention into operation. But Hans Karlsson believes that they are seriously considering it. The EU places increasingly strict demands for reduced emissions, so something must be done.
“I know the company has closed its doors and doesn’t want to talk to the outside world about the technology. In my experience, that is usually a good sign!” says Hans Karlsson with a chuckle.
He and the students have cut their ties to ‘their’ invention. But in the spring the course will be running again. Then a new group of students will meet companies including the Norwegian firm Statoil. Or rather, then Statoil will get to meet a new group of students.