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Boosting the biomass opportunity: How NTK Oxygen Sensors are fighting climate change

Known worldwide as the automotive sector’s leading ignition and sensor specialist, NGK SPARK PLUG is harnessing its technological expertise in an additional, agriculture-related field: environmentally friendly heating.

The company, whose ‘Nittoku Way’ philosophy includes a commitment to future generations, is supplying precision NTK Vehicle Electronics oxygen sensors to monitor the air-fuel mixture in biomass heating systems; a growing, carbon-neutral way to heat homes and businesses. With its precision oxygen sensors selected by H&S Kabeltechnik, a major supplier of cables, plugs and sensors to biomass boiler manufacturers, NGK SPARK PLUG has been contributing to a more sustainable future for more than a decade.

Environmental advantages in focus

Virtually unlimited resource: Wood is a renewable raw material that is available relatively locally worldwide, making it sustainable as long as new trees are grown to replace those used

Lower energy manufacture: The production of (for example) wood pellets requires far less energy than finite fuels such as oil or gas

Carbon neutral: Biomass combustion releases only the same amount of CO2 when burned as the tree or plant absorbed during its growing lifetime

Low emission: Because biomass combustion takes place at a temperature where atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen can chemically combine, biomass boilers generally produce less NOx than oil boilers. They also produce no oxides of sulphur (SOx) and no smoke if the fuel is dry

Expansion potential

In practical terms, biomass, short for ‘biological mass’, refers to any fuel material derived from an organic (plant or animal) source. In the field of renewable heating, that means any solid fuel that can be burned in a biomass boiler; most commonly wood pellets, chips or logs. The type of biomass boiler chosen may be low temperature hot water (LTHW), high temperature hot water (HTHW) or steam, depending on available space and the amount and temperature of heat demanded.

“Although biomass central heating and hot water boilers are still relatively uncommon compared with conventional oil, gas or coal-fired types, their use is likely to increase significantly,” explains Alexander Schwier (Head of Global Key Account Management Daimler AG OE) at NGK SPARK PLUG EUROPE. “Around six million heating systems are produced annually across Europe, of which around 250,000 (4%) currently use biomass fuel. However, biomass boilers deliver all the cost and eco-advantages required by the modern world, plus they can be retrofitted. That means we are likely to see a big uptake of biomass for heating in residential buildings, offices, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and factories in the coming years.”

Affordability and sustainability

The advantages of biomass boilers over fossil fuel types are clear. Biomass brings the attraction of greater affordability, thanks to EU-wide subsidies encouraging the switch from oil and often lower ongoing fuel costs. Importantly, biomass is also renewable, carbon neutral and low emission when burned; offering major environmental benefits over fossil fuels.

How oxygen sensors help

To optimise these advantages and encourage market growth, however, highly accurate air-fuel measurements are essential. Johannes Wader, Director Special Projects OE at NGK SPARK PLUG EUROPE explains: “Oxygen sensors are as important to biomass boilers as they are to automotive internal combustion engines. In both applications, the sensor reports the percentage of oxygen in the residual exhaust gas to an electronic control unit, which adjusts the air-fuel mixture as closely to an optimal – low emission generating – combustion.”

Continuous data from a precision oxygen sensor is therefore key to maintaining the perfect air-fuel ratio. “Without it, the boiler’s combustion control system cannot effectively lower harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions or minimise consumption of the biomass fuel,” emphasises Mr. Wader.

Partners in technology

In 2009, long-established cable assembly, plug connection and oxygen sensor suppliers H&S Kabeltechnik selected NGK SPARK PLUG as its trusted oxygen sensor provider; a significant endorsement of the company’s world leadership in sensor innovation. Throughout their 11-year relationship, the two companies have worked closely together to help achieve advances in the important biomass field.

Christian Hochegger, Managing Director of H&S Kabeltechnik confirms: “We have specialised in supplying assembled cables to a number of industries worldwide from our bases in Austria and Hungary for 15 years. The potential for biomass heating systems in particular is huge – and it’s a market where precision counts. That’s why we only appoint partners who share our expectation of technical perfection.”

“After previously unsatisfying experiences with other partners we found that NGK SPARK PLUG not only offered world-class quality sensors, but would also work with us to develop three, zirconium dioxide and wideband-type oxygen sensors specifically to enhance the efficiency of biomass boilers. From concepts and innovation to manufacture and a presence at international heating trade fairs, it has been a fruitful and highly cooperative partnership,” says Markus Schroll, Managing Director of H&S Kabeltechnik.

Further initiatives

Beyond biomass, opportunities to improve the eco-credentials of gas boilers are also being progressed by NGK SPARK PLUG and H&S Kabeltechnik. “For space reasons biomass heating systems aren’t always suitable for use, especially in urban areas. Gas boilers are the usual choice, but currently their output is only controlled by engine speed, with the air-gas mixture pre-set. Because gas quality varies greatly around the world, efficiency and low emissions are therefore not guaranteed,” says NGK SPARK PLUG EUROPE’s Johannes Wader. With this in mind the two companies are jointly exploring ways of introducing oxygen sensors to detect the quality of gas boiler combustion; thereby increasing efficiency and reducing emissions. Pioneering projects with major manufacturers are already underway, with the first tests due to start by next year.

Environmental mission

NGK SPARK PLUG EUROPE’s Alexander Schwier adds that the company’s transfer of its state-of-the-art sensor expertise to heating systems is just part of a wider commitment. “Biomass and gas fit into our strategic goals to develop into new, sustainable business fields, such as energy and the environment. By applying our knowledge in automotive ignition and sensor technologies in this way, we can do our bit towards a more energy efficient, environmentally friendly society.”