Lets Talk Furnace Heating Systems

Today we are pleased to offer you an interview with Mr. Matt Wolf, CEO of heating technology company “Noxmat”. In this discussion Matt talks about the relative merits of gas heat treating vs; electric, furnace conversions, trends in the industry and which technology to use. We at “The Monty Heat Treat News” found Matt to be knowledgeable, open and candid in his interview and we are sure you will also.

In an era of energy uncertainties combined with rising costs one of the hottest topics is that of efficient energy consumption. We are very pleased today to be speaking with Mr. Matthias Wolf, CEO of NOXMAT GmbH, the only company we are aware of that offers both gas and electric heating options. Matthias, or should I say Matt, I have been looking forward to asking you a few questions about this very interesting topic.

Matt, let’s start with your own personal background, how did you end up in the position you are in now?

Well Gord, this has been without a doubt the most pleasant professional journey of my life and the most rewarding position I have held over the course of my career. Having reached my mid 40’s about a decade ago, I was living and working in the great city of Pittsburgh, when the small East German company NOXMAT near my hometown of Freiberg started looking for a successor to their CEO, who would soon retire. So, I packed my bags and left my Pennsylvania home, taking with me a host of incredible memories from a decade-long career running German companies in North America. The rest is history. Based on my international management experience, we expanded our NOXMAT footprint into China, India, and recently to the US, where we opened our Michigan operations this year. As you can see Gord, this was a full-circle moment for me.

Let’s switch from you to NOXMAT itself. Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell us about the company, its history, and its ownership.

There is a reason why I also call my staff my panel of experts. NOXMAT originated from a university project that was conducted at the DBI Institute and the Academy of Mining in my hometown of Freiberg in the early 1990s, focusing on energy-efficient combustion technology. As a result of this project, a line of energy-efficient industrial burners was created, and the decision was made to launch a company to produce that technology and bring it to a global market. From a 7-employee start-up, NOXMAT has evolved into an organization employing approx. 60 people on 3 continents and exporting regularly to over 30 countries. A particular strength of our company is the aftersales service organization, which provides maintenance, repair, commissioning, and retrofits. Our growth is very well supported by our Austrian Owners, ultimately the very well managed Berndorf AG, a widely known industrial holding company.

Right off the bat I mentioned that as far as I know NOXMAT is the only company in the world to offer both gas and electric options. Was this a fair statement on my part? At this point I think it would be very interesting for you to tell us what products you have available.

At least at an engineering level and as a manufacturer of industrial heating solutions we are fairly unique with our product range. The range of combustion solutions goes from simple cold air burners to recuperative burner systems with and without flameless oxidation as an option, to the highly efficient ETAMAT line of burners which achieves a firing efficiency of up to 90%, saving gas and CO2 in the process. As decarbonization is a very current and pressing topic in many regions of the world, we have recently been focusing on developing a line of electric heating solutions with a high heat density in order to be able to replace gas-fired systems with electrical solutions. This can be quite a challenge but, in many cases, we were successful with our technology. One of my favorite words in my native German language is “Zeitgeist”, one of the few words that have also made it into the English language. And following this “Zeitgeist” we are also getting our combustion systems ready to burn hydrogen or other synthetic fuels with quite some success so that we can engineer solutions for these applications once the infrastructure to support it is ready.

What percentage of your sales involve natural gas burners and what percentage electrical heating elements?

The sales figures of industrial gas burners are still far higher than our sales of electric heating solution. This has been accelerated by the fact that at the beginning of 2023 we took over the business of the highly engineered Wiedemann burners, which are almost exclusively used in the Aluminum Industry, where the demand for heat is almost impossible to meet with electric heating in the commonly used furnaces of that industry. However, the current demand for electric heating elements to replace gas burners exceeds our manufacturing capacity and we are ramping up to produce higher volumes coupled with more flexible solutions for the future.

What is the relative efficiency of each?

As a rule of thumb, Gord, the firing efficiency ranges from approx. 50% in a cold air burner to approx. 90% using the NOXMAT-developed ETAMAT technology for combustion systems. On electric heating systems the conversion rate of electric energy to heat is above 99% with only minimal losses.

What advantages/disadvantages are there for each technology?

There is no easy answer to this and the best one is – it depends. Using or switching to electric heating might make sense for the user if this type of energy is available in abundance, especially for larger installations and if the cost of electricity vs. gas-fired heating is not prohibitive. We always need to consider where the electrical energy comes from since only electricity generated from renewable sources can help save CO2. Oftentimes this is not the case and looking at the energy mix in many countries, gas-fired systems may even contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions than burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. A case when electric heating systems do have an advantage, however, is during initial investment, maintenance, and emissions, but you have to offset this for a lower heat output. Gas-fired systems can deliver heat more quickly, faster and at a higher rate, but you have to look after these systems, carrying out regular maintenance jobs. The topic of emissions, especially NOx, has been much talked about, especially since the Diesel engine scandal broke. Efficient combustion at high temperatures naturally generates a lot of NOx as nitrogen is the dominating element in our combustion air. Therefore, we must lower these emissions either at source, for instance trough flameless oxidation, or as an aftertreatment using a NOx catalytic converter. These catalytic systems were developed by NOXMAT to be used in new furnaces and as a retrofit option for existing plants.

Now this is the big question and one I have been looking forward to asking you – is this mix changing? Let me elaborate on this question. CO2 emissions are a growing concern for many around the world, more so in Europe than North America but still a growing concern. Are you seeing a trend towards more electric as opposed to gas because of emissions?

Here the answer is definitely YES. In areas where electric heating hadn’t even been considered because of higher running cost in the past – nowadays, thanks to what I would call environmental correctness and good corporate governance, this seems to have changed the momentum. When we are asked to quote heating systems for industrial furnaces, we are often asked to provide both options, gas and electric, so that the furnace manufacturer and subsequently their customers can look at their corporate strategy and cost/benefit considerations and make up their mind about which way to go. I’m glad that here at NOXMAT we can offer both alternatives and can therefore help to engineer the best individual solution for our customer’s application.

This is probably a very unfair question to ask but I am going to ask it anyway – which is more cost effective-gas or electric? I say unfair because I realize this depends upon the local rates for each. As an example, in North American electricity is cheaper than gas in a few areas, Quebec, Oregon and Tennessee come to mind. However, in general around the world would you care to suggest which is typically more cost effective?

Again, Gord, it depends, and it depends on current and future strategies regarding sustainability vs. cost. Each region, each country and each continent is currently looking for their position in the future energy market. Just as supply and demand regulates the oil and gas markets, the market for electric energy, increasingly from renewable sources, should behave the same. If in the end renewable energy generation becomes ever more available and affordable, then in my opinion, the energy market will most likely regulate itself. 

In your opinion does it make sense to convert a furnace from gas-heated to electric or vice versa? From time to time, I am asked about converting a gas-fired Batch IQ furnace as an example from gas to electric or the other way round. Reasons for this could include CO2 emissions, cleanliness, or cheaper rates of one or the other. In your opinion does this make sense when you consider the labor involved and the cost of the equipment itself?

We are living in times of change and the answer to your question usually comes from the preference set by the responsible management of companies using furnace equipment. As the total cost of running, maintaining, and utilizing the equipment depends on so many factors, at NOXMAT we usually encounter customers who know exactly in which direction they want to go. Since we are able to support energy conversion projects in both directions, we may give our expert opinion to our customers and in the end execute their well-founded decision. NOXMAT has carried out energy conversion projects that made sense, converting gas to electric heating more frequently than the other way around.

Do you see furnace conversions very often?

We don’t just see them very often, Gord, we are doing them. The range is extremely broad, from batch to continuous furnace lines up to extremely large and complex projects in the ceramics and building materials industry. I would estimate that on average, NOXMAT quotes 3 to 4 projects per month with an average hit rate of 30-40%. So yes, we are indeed busy with conversions in our main markets in Europe and less frequently in Asia.

Hydrogen. We keep hearing about hydrogen as an exciting alternative to natural gas. Is the technology advanced enough to make it a viable alternative? Does NOXMAT have an involvement with this or plans to get involved?

Oh yes, you are touching on a literally very hot topic Gord. The debate if hydrogen is a viable energy source for the future is very diverse and I haven’t heard the ultimately convincing argument that hydrogen will be the next big thing. What I do believe, however, is that hydrogen will be part of a future energy mix as technology to generate hydrogen on an industrial scale for the use in combustion technology evolves. At NOXMAT, we are participating in a number of projects involving university research and industry partners. We don’t simply look at topics surrounding the combustion of hydrogen or synthetic gases but also at related factors like control systems and suitable materials which sustain higher combustion temperatures. In our laboratories in Germany, we have established a hydrogen infrastructure to carry out hydrogen combustion tests. The results are such that we can recommend and implement a selected range of industrial burners, which can be run with hydrogen or natural gas, thus providing the opportunity to switch between the combustion gases depending on their availability. I have to mention though that this technology hasn’t left our laboratory yet.

Just a few months ago I visited your brand-new US location which was just getting started. Where are you at with this expansion and what are your future plans for the North American market?

It took NOXMAT a considerably long time to make the move into the North American market for industrial heating. The range of high-efficiency and energy-saving products had not been in such high demand while energy was relatively cheap. Now that we have broadened our range, added the Wiedemann Burners for the Aluminum industry and electric heating, I believe we have much more to offer than in the past. Our operations in Sterling Heights, MI are in the ramp-up phase and we will approach the American market step by step, starting with a local office for sales and customer service, later adding field services for maintenance, repair commissioning, and start-up, and in a final stage we will look into manufacturing a selected product range in our US facility.

Matt, this is such an interesting subject that I could probably ask you another 20 questions, but I don’t want to take up too much of your time. Thank you for your interesting and informative answers. 

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