EU research stops thermal pollution and helps ceramics industry to stay competitive

Luca Manzini, energy manager of the ceramic producer Gruppo Concorde* in Italy, talks to ESCI about how waste heat can be reused, the challenges of producing tiles in Italy and his role in investigating the benefits of the EU-funded research project ETEKINA on one of the factories.


What do you hope to achieve within the ETEKINA project?


Manzini: From my point of view as energy manager, the aim is to capture the waste energy with an interesting enthalpy level. Waste energy occurs in form of heat. It is contained in the kilns’ exhaust. After a filtration process, the fumes from the kilns are released into the atmosphere. So, what we hope to do is to intercept this power, reduce the load of thermal pollution caused by the emissions and reduce the use of natural gas within our company. This power would be transferred to other equipment that needs heat energy, with burners using less gas thanks to the energy that comes from the kilns’ exhaust.


You explained how this system works but if we speak about numbers, what do you hope to achieve?


Manzini: If we talk about the spray dryer, for instance, which is one of the biggest consumers of thermal power that we have, we hope to decrease the use by 10%; it could be even a bit more. Anyway, it is not a marginal percentage of its usage. It is a very big machine that has considerable use and a 10% saving in heat power could mean a 5% saving if we relate it to the factory.


Is this the one that dries the tiles…?


Manzini: The spray-dryer is a machine that dries the slip, which is a mixture of water and clay. In the spray dryer this mixture is nebulised and dried through an air flow of 600°. In order to reach this temperature, the airflow is warmed up through burners; part of this warming will be made through heat recycling that we will implement with the ETEKINA project.


Is there another recycling system today?


Manzini: There can be other recycling systems but it is not always true that they can interact with the technical reality of the factory. In the specific case of Atlas Concorde in Fiorano Modenese, other heat recovery techniques cannot be implemented with what we have. So, this is the only way, in this case, to raise the bar.


Let’s talk about your tile company. How big is it? What is its position at global level?


Manzini: At national level, Atlas Concorde is a very well-known brand in the sense that Concorde Group is a market leader; it is leader in tile production in Italy. It produces about 10% of all Italian tiles. The factory, which will host the ETEKINA project, could repave Buckingham Palace with one week’s worth of production.


We also know that, in your field, work is hard, isn’t it? Producing in Italy costs more than producing in China. How can you deal with this?


Manzini: Producing in Italy is more onerous than in other places. This is because the cost of raw materials, power and personnel make the production more complicated in Italy. Concorde Group believes in Italian production, even though it has factories abroad; but we are probably the Italian tile group with the highest number of factories in Italy. We have always believed in the value of the people and the tile tradition which is specific to our area.


How important are the costs?


Manzini: The costs are a factor of competitiveness and disadvantage towards European and global industries. Speaking about electricity: in France this kind of power is cheaper than in Italy; or ask our Slovenian colleagues, involved in the project, who were shocked by the cost of electricity in Italy. By contrast, the cost of gas and obviously thermal power is more uniform across Europe although Italy remains hindered insofar as much of this energy comes from north-eastern Europe.  The cost of natural gas in Russia is four to five times lower than in Italy. These are very different numbers and for this reason we need to aim at energy efficiency. If we cannot find supply with a good price, we have to try to use our machines as little as possible and be more efficient at the same time. We need to think about efficient technologies, self-production of electric power or heat recycling like in the ETEKINA project. Simple interventions in ordinary routines can be useful, too, like LED lamps or variable speed drives applied to filtration engines. We are also concerned about energy used for producing compressed air; we generally try to control production so that it is as efficient as possible in terms of energy, time and money.


Do you think you will adapt heat pipe heat exchangers (HPHEs) also in other factories of your organisation?


Manzini: I think that we would not take part in this project if we hadn’t seen this opportunity. I see the usefulness of an incentive, in the case of the ETEKINA project, which has European funding. This is something new in the tile sector and we wouldn’t have been able to go down this road unless we received financial backing from the European Union. What we hope to achieve is a technological maturity to allow us to continue this work. This means ensuring the technology is reliable, safe and efficient in the factory context.


How are things going within ETEKINA project?


Manzini: In my opinion, the environment is supportive, with close collaboration with the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and with Prof. Hussam Jouhara, the Technical Coordinator. And I must say that the group seems productive, which helps the project move forwards. We share problems so that they don’t turn into barriers.  This is developing well. In our factory we have created a team which works enthusiastically on the project.


* Gruppo Concorde is a holding which owns and controls different Italian tile companies. Among these firms, Atlas Concorde is directly involved in the ETEKINA project. The ETEKINA heat pipe technology is applied to a specific case in one of the Ceramiche Atlas Concorde factories.