One of the things for which Belgium has long been famous (other than very special chocolates) is its textile industry. Tourists may also be familiar with the fine lace which can be found for sale in every town.

Early in the 20th century, flax was a major crop since it provided the raw material for that textile industry. Part of its preparation involved separating the fibre from the husk by a rotting process.

Flax farmers around Harelbeke, home town of the Vyncke family, used the river Leie to provide the water for this process, but the rotting was accelerated by using hot water and steam.

Thus Louis Vyncke set up a business in 1912 importing Lancaster boilers from the UK and creating systems to provide hot water and steam for the flax processors.

The obvious choice of fuel for the systems was the husk from the flax itself and so we have an early example of a biomass energy system turning a by-product into energy.

Later, alongside the flax industry, there grew up a business making particleboard from flax (flaxboard), again using the husks to generate heat and steam for the production process.

In the 1970s, the Belgian textile industry began its decline, although some companies are still in that business today, and flax became shorter in supply. The particleboard makers then turned to wood as the raw material for their panels and, naturally, from flax husks to wood waste for their fuel, continuing the biomass tradition.

This sounds like a classic case of a company being in the right place at the right time. Vyncke was located in the middle of an important particleboard/flaxboard producing area and was experienced in generating energy from biomass. From this basis, the company has gone global over the years – and still does the majority of its turnover in the wood based panels sector.

The first oil crisis did not do the company any harm either as, faced with a shortage of fuel oil, people looked for energy systems which could utilise alternative fuels.

“That’s when we started the development of our patented Dynamic Watercooled Stepgrate,” explains senior sales manager Lieven Tarras, who has particular responsibility for Vyncke’s business with the panel industry.

“This invention is at the heart of all our installations, it is our strong point and means that we can offer multi-fuel energy plants to our customers, giving them a very real flexibility.”

The first such system was installed in the early 1980s and represented the first step for Vyncke from being simple steam boiler manufacturers to integrating combustion, engineering and boiler systems, says Mr Tarras.

“Prior to that, we offered very simple combination systems with no control and there was generally no real concern about the smoke and gaseous emissions in those early days. However, throughout the 1980s, those environmental issues were becoming increasingly important.”

It seems that Vyncke’s new patented step-grate already had the answers.

“Because of the water cooling of our combination systems, we had better control of combustion quality because we didn’t need air for cooling but used water,” explains Mr Tarras. “Therefore we could regulate the combustion air to the optimum.

“You have to understand that combustion is a chemical process and, as with every chemical reaction, it needs the right temperature, time, turbulence and the reaction components delivered in the right amounts. It is important to have the right amount of air for combustion without being driven by the need for air for cooling as well.”

The company does not itself supply exhaust gas cleaners for its energy plants, but tries to modify the combustion process to avoid the necessity for filter installations as much as possible.

The principle of the Dynamic Watercooled Stepgrate, or DWS, is that the grate itself is rather like a staircase in appearance.

Each step or tread of the ‘staircase’ is a water-filled tube which is part of a closed circuit. The water is forced around the tubes to keep the temperature of the grate stable.

The combustible material burns on this water-cooled step grate, while between every step is a ‘pusher’ made of a special cast iron, which moves back and forth sending the combustible material down the steps at a regulated speed. The grate itself is divided into zones where the speed of progress of the combustible material and the amount of combustion air are regulated.

Combustible material is fed into the top of the grate via a hopper and screw transporters. Other energy plant makers use pushers, says Mr Tarras but he claims the screws provide a more consistent and constant feed.

Heat energy is recovered from the cooling water via a heat exchanger and used to pre-heat the incoming combustion air.

“Water cooling has several advantages,” says Mr Tarras. “You don’t need air for cooling so the air is regulated solely for combustion quality and capacity. Also, water cooling controls the expansion of the grate and this results in better air distribution because you do not need to allow for expansion gaps on the grate parts. You can burn fuels of high calorific values such as very dry material. Finally, water cooling avoids clinker build-up because the clinker crystallises on the grate in small particles and is thus easier to evacuate.”

He went on to explain that burning sunflower husks is a good example because they have a low melting point and if temperature is not accurately controlled, they will coagulate and stick to the grate.

A lot of MDF mills ‘burn’ at least part of their process water in their energy plant, but simply putting it on the fuel in an unregulated way will affect the combustion.

“We inject that water directly into the combustion chamber but in a controlled way with a special metering pump – this is a much better system,” says Mr Tarras.

Vyncke also offers its Turbix dust burner after the grate to burn dust created from the panel making process – ‘incidental dust’ so to speak. For sander or other high quantities of dust, Vyncke recommends specialist dust burner suppliers to its clients.

Luckily for Vyncke, the 1980s proved to be a period of rapid expansion in panel production globally, particularly with the increasing market success of MDF.

“This means that today we have projects in every continent,” says Mr Tarras.

The company is not only involved in the wood industry, but has four business units, of which wood based panels is the first and biggest, accounting for 50-60% of Vyncke’s e50m turnover.

The largest such energy system supplied to date is an 80MW one at Classen’s MDF factory in Baruth in the east of Germany.

‘Energy demand in the wood processing industry is diverse: thermal oil, steam, hot water, hot gases and electricity are often needed simultaneously,’ points out one of the company brochures. ‘So Vyncke builds multimedia energy plants’.

It claims to be the only company with inhouse expertise for this.

The second business unit is the wood processing industry. This includes furniture, flooring and so on – principally users of wood based panels. These are generally smaller systems of up to 20MW.

The third area is the agricultural industry such as rice, palm oil, coconut, sunflowers and these generally require installations to provide high-pressure steam in combination with electrical power. They are usually 50-60MW capacity thermal power and up to 11.5MW electrical power.

The above two business areas account for around 10-15% of turnover at Vyncke.

The fourth and final business unit is the power industry, currently accounting for 20% of turnover – and rising, according to Mr Tarras.

“These are not electricity generators as such. We limit ourselves to combination plants for energy and steam generation and work with partners who provide electricity generating expertise and act as the main contractor,” he explains.

“We also sometimes set up ‘temporary consortia’ for some larger projects, such as one with ERDA of Belgium where we worked with AMEC SPIE.

“In this particular project, bark from sawmills is used to generate steam and the steam is used primarily to produce electricity, while steam from after the turbine is used to dry sawdust. This dry sawdust is then made into fuel pellets, while any excess electricity is sold to the grid.”

With all the attention given to the threat of major European electricity generators being subsidised to take the raw material (wood) required by particleboard mills to burn in their plants, one might think there is a big opening there for Vyncke – something which might not go down well with their majority panel-making customer base.

However, Mr Tarras assures me that those kind of massive projects are not where the company wants to be and are in “a different league, not for our size of company”.

“We try to enable people to burn what can’t be used to make particleboard. We specialise our installations so they can accept waste from the wood based panels industry. We do have a few projects where maybe the material burned could be used in panel production, but that is the exception rather than the rule and those plants are small capacity – 2.5 to 4.5MW compared with 30 to 50MW in panel plants.

“We also supplied one plant to a German electricity generator burning demolition wood but that material was unusable in panel manufacture.”

Vyncke’s North American office has sold a number of plants to greenhouse-owning companies in Canada and the northern US to substitute natural gas fuel, again with otherwise unusable demolition timber.

The Vyncke factory in Harelbeke was formerly a railway station and still displays some old steam engines and boilers as reminders of both the site’s and the company’s history.

The key components of the energy plants are made and assembled here for world markets from scratch, starting with steel plate and some bought-in castings.

Vyncke also has a large workshop in Frydek in the Czech Republic which has been operating for about 10 years, where assembly and manufacture of some peripheral equipment is carried out.

Worldwide, the company directly employs about 250 people.

Large heavy pressure vessels are normally sourced locally to the customer, to Vyncke specifications, to avoid transporting them great distances.

“We do a lot of global sourcing, always mindful of the currency issues, but combustion and control systems are always made here in Harelbeke and all design and development work is done here,” says Mr Tarras.

On the 5th June this year, the company will open a workshop in Suzhou, China, where it will manufacture combustion systems solely for the Asian market.

Dieter Vyncke, one of two sons of third-generation company chairman Dirk Vyncke, currently lives in Shanghai and is overseeing this development.

His brother Peter Vyncke (36) is ceo of the company and based at the Belgian headquarters.

Vyncke also has service centres in Thailand and Canada as well as its own facilities in Brazil.

“The first three or four years of this century saw exceptional investment in energy systems for the Chinese market but there has been a shift in the last three or four years towards Europe, which went from 10 to 60% of total turnover. These are new panel factories as well as existing ones which are replacing their energy plants to reduce costs in the face of rising oil prices,” says Mr Tarras.

The advent of carbon credits has provided another strong incentive to panel mills to go down this ‘green energy’ route. They can gain credits which they will be able to sell.

One current project under construction in Europe is for Sonae Indústria’s factory in Oliveira do Hospital in Portugal. Here Vyncke is replacing an existing energy plant by building the new one alongside it so that the switch-over can be effected with minimal downtime.

“There is a policy in Portugal to clear the debris from the forest floor to help prevent forest fires and this material is to be used in energy generation,” says Mr Tarras.

Sonae already plans to extend the new energy plant, which is due on stream in May 2008, to generate electricity in a co-generation scheme.

There is a big move to biomass fuel for energy in Europe, explains Mr Tarras and a lot of European factories which have traditionally used natural gas as their energy source have seen their costs escalate dramatically.

One such plant is Unilin’s in Bazeilles, France and so the company is adding a Vyncke 20MW wood-fired hot gas generator to its existing line to almost completely eliminate the use of gas – and save money.

At the time of WBPI’s visit, Peter Vyncke was preparing the company’s biennial report to be distributed at Ligna. It is nothing like any annual company report you have ever seen, taking the format of a parody on an inflight magazine. It is designed to be entertaining as well as informative, he says.

“It will be special – even more than 2005’s which took the form of a movie poster. It has a truly international theme and will include 10 features with interviews with customers, printed in eight different languages,” says Mr Vyncke who is very enthusiastic about this publication.

Copies will be available at the Vyncke stand in hall 27.