In an era where efficiency and greater circularity are non-negotiable, engineers are emerging as the “hidden champions” driving change in business and production. At GEA, a broad and diverse group of engineers and technologists are working hard to confront the pressing challenges of our time – climate change, resource depletion and eliminating waste in all its forms.
It's 8 a.m. on a Monday morning and GEA engineer Dr. Felix Ortloff and his team are already engrossed in the charts and numbers displayed on his monitor – real-time data from a cement plant that currently emits about 1,000 tons of CO2 per day. It’s not just about interpreting the data; they want to fundamentally change the situation and help mitigate global warming. Having grown up hiking and skiing in the mountains, Ortloff has witnessed – also in real time – the impact of climate change on his beloved Alps. It’s what drove him to study chemical engineering and devote his professional life to finding better, more sustainable ways of doing things. Ortloff is Senior Director of GEA Carbon Capture Solutions, helping cement plants and other heavy industrial emitters reduce the amount of CO2 they release into the atmosphere.
GEA’s carbon capture mission
Although carbon capture technology has been used for decades in the oil & gas industry, it is still fairly new territory for today’s heavy CO2-emitters such as the cement, steel, glass and chemical industries. “More and more, companies in these hard-to-abate sectors have no choice but to start removing CO2 from their emission streams, but this also means major investments in new technology,” says Ortloff. “Doing this cost-effectively will require solutions that are tailored to their specific plant configurations yet standardized enough to ensure easy installation and use.”
Ortloff regards these challenges less as roadblocks and more as opportunities that play to GEA’s strengths. “Our approach is all about eliminating uncertainties for customers,” he explains. “In addition to the carbon capture plant itself, our expertise also includes gas cleaning, heat recovery and re-use of captured CO2, which has allowed us to create an end-to-end CO2 emission reduction portfolio that is both fit for purpose and cost effective.”
GEA’s approach is a practical one designed to help heavy emitters get started quickly with carbon capture. “Our pilot plant has proven that once scaled up, it can achieve 90% CO2 removal, but we also know that removal on such a large scale is not realistic for most companies,” he says. “With our modular design approach, we enable customers to take a stepped approach to carbon capture. If a cement plant can achieve 20% CO2 removal by using available off-heat, this is an important advancement – and puts them in a stronger position to scale up capacity in the next step.”
“In addition to the carbon capture plant itself, our expertise also includes gas cleaning, heat recovery and re-use of captured CO2, which has allowed us to create an end-to-end CO2 emission reduction portfolio that is both fit for purpose and cost effective.”
- Felix Ortloff, Senior Director, Carbon Capture Solutions, GEA
Ortloff is just one of many experts across GEA designing equipment that makes high-impact industries more sustainable. Collectively, they tackle some of the most critical issues of our time, but also know that real progress depends on solutions which make business sense for the customer. They enable climate action that is also financially viable; providing solutions that meet today’s requirements but can also be scaled to tomorrow’s needs. They follow the customer’s lead, while opening them up to new possibilities, balancing standardization with customized solutions. They draw on longstanding engineering know-how while breaking ground with new technologies. Their work may not grab headlines, but it is foundational. With every data point analyzed, every parameter adjusted, and every process optimized or turned on its head, they are laying the groundwork for a future where business and sustainability are inextricably linked.
Sustainable heating and cooling
Isabel Osterroth is a Senior Director in GEA’s Heating & Refrigeration Technologies division. As an engineer, she concluded that without climate action, economies and societies will suffer. “Making industry processes more efficient and reducing waste seemed like a natural area where I could contribute. And GEA has a unique portfolio to turn climate-related risks into opportunities for customers,” she explains. Today, she leads a team developing sustainable engineering solutions. Together, they help companies across the food, beverage and dairy sectors drastically reduce their energy consumption. “Heating and cooling are responsible for anywhere between 50 and 90% of a plant’s entire energy consumption,” says Osterroth. “The good news is that factories can recover energy from their production processes to supply the large majority of their heating needs and in some cases completely do away with fossil-fuel burning boilers.”
A case in point: GEA’s innovative heat pump solutions recently helped smoothie manufacturer innocent drinks build its highly acclaimed carbon-neutral factory in the Netherlands – one of the world’s first. “Not all customers come to us wanting to design a revolutionary production facility. However, companies across the board are setting more and more ambitious climate targets,” says Osterroth. “And now they need solutions to actually realize these targets.” For Osterroth, understanding the customer’s specific needs and major pain points is the key to a successful solution. “We always ask our customers: What brings real value to you, and how can we help you achieve your targets?”
At the same time, GEA’s broad, interdisciplinary perspective often opens customers’ eyes to new possibilities. "To tap into more impactful opportunities, it’s important to break out of operational silos and think bigger. At GEA, we have the unique advantage of a broad portfolio. By bringing together our different competencies, and as early in the process as possible, we can offer holistic and game-changing solutions that were previously unimaginable."
“Factories can recover energy from their production processes to supply the large majority of their heating needs and in some cases completely do away with fossil-fuel burning boilers.”
- Isabel Osterroth, Senior Director, GEA Heating & Refrigeration Technologies, GEA
Efficient dairy processing
Christian Becker, a Product Manager in GEA’s Separation & Flow Technologies division, works on efficient solutions for the dairy processing industry. With an engineering degree in food technology and more than two decades at GEA, Becker is drawn to the unique challenges and opportunities the dairy industry faces today. “Dairy is traditionally a low-profile, conservative sector, but today very much in the spotlight because of its role in two major issues of our time: food security and climate change,” he says. “Therefore, it’s being forced to change to navigate the tough headwinds it faces.”
In fact, the entire dairy value chain is impacted: from pressures on farmers and changing consumer habits to the dairy processing companies. They face rising energy and water costs, as well as regulations that demand investments in sustainable technologies to reduce dairy’s carbon footprint. “On the processing side, we continue to improve the energy efficiency of our core dairy equipment, including separators, spray dryers and evaporators – all of which have a high energy demand,” says Becker. “We’ve also developed a separator solution that reduces water cooling consumption by 99.9% compared to conventional cooling methods, resulting in savings of more than 1.3 million liters of water per year, per separator.”
And Becker points out, GEA is not only optimizing process design, but also the way in which machines are operated. This includes digital products to help customers identify and utilize untapped efficiency potential, as well as new business models where customers pay for a service rather than owning the product itself. And with some of the same centrifugal technology, GEA is helping companies seize the opportunity of new food. “We enable customers to tap into the growth dynamics offered by dairy alternatives which require customized production methods,” says Becker. “In short, our solutions are helping lower the footprint of dairy foods.”
“We’ve developed a separator solution that reduces water cooling consumption by 99.9% compared to conventional cooling methods, resulting in savings of more than 1.3 million liters of water per year, per separator.”
- Christian Becker, Product Manager, Separation & Flow Technologies, GEA
Realizing the promise of alternative proteins
Helping drive the evolution of new food solutions is Daniel Grenov, Product Manager for Bioreactors in GEA’s Liquid & Powder Technologies division. With a degree in mechanical engineering as well as one in sustainable business and commerce, Grenov is dedicated to help create a more sustainable food system. Today, he is working to advance the cause of protein alternatives that range from plant-based to cell-cultured sources. “The big idea is to decouple land use and food production,” he says. “Precision fermentation and cellular food production both offer viable ways to do this and could potentially revolutionize our food system.”
New food is an example of GEA bridging “old and new” – drawing on decades of experience in food processing to help companies make breakthroughs in the exciting new area of alternative proteins. “When producing dairy proteins via precision fermentation, for example, the integrity of an end-product such as whey needs to be maintained through a long line of processing – from media preparation, to sterilization, separation, homogenization, filtration and spray drying,” says Grenov. “These are all areas where GEA offers equipment and expertise from start to finish.”
For all the promise of new foods, Grenov highlights a key challenge: "Even with drastically reduced land use, which cell cultivation and fermentation both deliver on, we want to get as close as possible to zero consumption when it comes to inputs,” he says. “To realize their potential as green alternatives, it is critical to minimize energy and water use.” Sure enough, GEA engineers are finding solutions here, too. “We are engaged in creating circular loops for recovering water and energy, and our customers are responding really well to these initiatives.”
“The big idea is to decouple land use and food production. Precision fermentation and cellular food production both offer viable ways to do this and could potentially revolutionize our food system.”
- Daniel Grenov, Product Manager for Bioreactors, Liquid & Powder Technologies, GEA
Bridging disciplines for a better future
Grenov's research into new food technologies, Becker's expertise in dairy processing technology, Osterroth's focus leveraging heating and cooling technology and Ortloff's work in carbon capture exemplify the innovation and collaboration happening across GEA to make sure customers achieve real progress towards their sustainability goals. It is a multifaceted approach that is generating some impressive numbers already. In 2022, GEA’s portfolio of heat pumps, compressors and heat recovery systems alone helped customers avoid nearly 700,000 tons of CO2 equivalents. That equals the amount emitted by roughly 146,000 people around the world in a single year.
“More and more across GEA, we are focusing our engineering know-how on solutions for a greener future,” says Becker. “Innovation and sustainability are the responsibility of all of us at GEA because it secures not only our company's future, but that of the planet.” Or as Ortloff puts it: “We cannot fight climate change on our own. We have a shared responsibility to come together and reverse the negative trends we are experiencing now, for the sake of future generations.”