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Machines of the future powered by formic acid?

What if you could produce fuel on your farm and convert it into hydrogen to power your tractors?

DENS (Dutch Energy Solutions) aims to make just that possible. The idea is to use Hydrozine or formic acid as a fuel (or rather: energy carrier) and convert that Hydrozine into hydrogen, which then generates electricity using a fuel cell. The emissions could even be re-used to produce Hydrozine, which makes it a full-circle energy carrier.

Hydrozine converter

The Dutch start-up DENS, located on the automotive campus in Helmond, the Netherlands, have invented a power source using a Hydrozine converter, and are now in the process of getting their first stationary applications ready for production in 2020. Those will be power generators, used on for instance construction sites and in road construction. Several large Dutch construction companies have already shown a keen interest in the clean and quiet Hydrozine power generators, as an alternative for “dirty” and loud diesel-powered generators.

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Max Aerts (left) and Tijn Swinkels, the founders of DENS. Behind them the prototype that they built together with  Dutch bus manufacturer VDL. This prototype delivers enough energy using formic acid to power a city bus. - Photos: Hugo Claver
Max Aerts (left) and Tijn Swinkels, the founders of DENS. Behind them the prototype that they built together with Dutch bus manufacturer VDL. This prototype delivers enough energy using formic acid to power a city bus. - Photos: Hugo Claver

Separate hydrogen from Hydrozine

So, why Hydrozine? It’s a long story, that starts with a handful of automotive engineering students at the Technical University (TU) Eindhoven. The university developed a catalytic converter that was able to separate hydrogen from Hydrozine, and the students were given the task to turn this system into a power source that could be used in a vehicle.

25 Watts of power

That vehicle was the Pico car, with which the students won € 5,000, which they used to form Team Fast and develop a scaled-down version of a Porsche sportscar, powered by a Hydrozin converter. “The little Porsche generated 25 Watts of power,” recalls Max Aerts, one of the founders of DENS.

A great success, but the real challenge came when Dutch bus manufacturer VDL approached Team Fast to develop a Hydrozine power source that could generate 25 kW and actually power a city bus.

“We got the job done and built a prototype that worked, but it wasn’t suited to do actual road testing. For that, we needed a lot more time to make it safe and sturdy enough for road testing, which we didn’t have,” says Aerts.

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Zero-emission power generator

And they didn’t need to, since Team Fast was then approached by Dutch construction company BAM to develop a zero-emission power generator. “That was the last job we did as Team Fast. After that, we founded DENS and started a real business to develop and produce these Hydrozine generators”, says Aerts. At the moment, 13 engineers are working on getting the first generation of DENS power generators ready for production.

Advantages of Hydrozine

According to Aerts, Hydrozine offers many advantages as energy carrier opposed to hydrogen. “The problem with hydrogen is storage and transport. You need to store it under tremendous pressure – 2,900 psi in a large storage tank to 13,000 psi when it goes to a filling station – which makes storage expensive and not what you‘d call user-friendly.” Besides that, because hydrogen is so volatile, it’s impossible to store it for longer periods of time.

Hydrozine is, says Aerts, much more user-friendly. “It’s available in large quantities, easy to store and transport, for which you don’t need special tanks or containers. So the existing infrastructure could be used to supply gas stations – or farms – with hydrozine.”

Hydrogen and CO2

The converter DENS developed separates Hydrozine (HCOOH) into hydrogen (H2) en CO2. The hydrogen then goes to a fuel cell, where an electro-chemical process takes place in order to generate energy in the form of electricity, which in turn can power an engine. The emission that comes out of the fuel cell, is H2O, or water. That H2O can be combined with the earlier seperated CO2 in order to create HCOOH again.

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DENS now employs 13 engineers, their first stationairy application of the Hydrozine reformers are planned to go into production in 2020.
DENS now employs 13 engineers, their first stationairy application of the Hydrozine reformers are planned to go into production in 2020.

More expensive than diesel

There are a few problems that DENS must overcome. At the moment, Hydrozine – which is being used in the food industry for example – is more expensive than diesel; the price will have to go down. Also, a system using the DENS converter is more expensive than a mass-produced combustion engine. A matter of supply and demand; if more are produced, the price will go down.

Huge potential for agriculture

While DENS is focusing on stationary equipment for the moment, Aerts says there is a huge potential for agriculture. “The next step will be mobile applications, such as excavators, and tractors. The possibilities are endless, any machine that is currently diesel-powered could be equipped with our system. Theoretically, a farmer could produce his own Hydrozine on his farm, and use that to power all of his machines, with zero emission.”


  • Bottom left is the Hydrozine tank, top right the filling nozzle.

    Bottom left is the Hydrozine tank, top right the filling nozzle.

  • The Hydrozine converter (looked at from above). Formic acid is being injected from the bottom, a catalytic converter separates the Hydrozine into hydrogen and CO2.

    The Hydrozine converter (looked at from above). Formic acid is being injected from the bottom, a catalytic converter separates the Hydrozine into hydrogen and CO2.

  • The hydrogen then goes to a fuel cell, where electricity is generated.

    The hydrogen then goes to a fuel cell, where electricity is generated.

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