FreeDeWaTER: the individual steps of purification from feed (left) to the final product (right)

Successful Together: How SMEs Succeed with Innovation

Collaboration between Mannheim University of Applied Sciences and Steinbeis results in two startups

Sharing the knowledge and technology offered by universities is an important building block of innovation. Collaboration between Mannheim University of Applied Sciences and the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Smart Manufacturing Solutions shows how this can succeed in practice. The joint project led to the launch of two startups, both of which are now making important contributions to the green energy transition and combating the impacts of climate change: FreeDeWaTER wants to offer access to clean drinking water, while MELT-Ing works with latent heat storage systems.

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Professor Dr. Matthias Rädle is a Steinbeis Entrepreneur and heads up CeMOS, the Center for Mass Spectrometry and Optical Spectroscopy at Mannheim University of Applied Sciences. Explaining the overlaps between the two new enterprises, despite their different areas of focus, he says: “The idea of setting up the companies was spawned by joint research at Mannheim University of Applied Sciences and work on a project at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Smart Manufacturing Solutions.”

FreeDeWaTER – drinking water thanks to environmentally friendly freeze crystallization

Although access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, some 2.2 billion people worldwide are still deprived of this access. Climate change and the resulting rises in global sea levels, as well as longer periods of drought, will further exacerbate this problem. A startup based in Mannheim, FreeDeWaTER has decided to do something about this situation and has developed a freeze crystallization system that converts non-potable water and seawater into drinking water. The technology used by this system was developed by its two founders, Dr. Lars Erlbeck and Dirk Wössner, in collaboration with Matthias Rädle. Their starting point was a foundation of knowledge acquired over many years at the CeMOS Research and Transfer Center in partnership with Smart Manufacturing Solutions, a Steinbeis Transfer Center.

The underlying physical process of freeze crystallization is as old as the Earth’s polar caps themselves. Water frozen at the polar caps forms pure ice crystals; salt and other impurities are not frozen within the mixture of water and ice, and as a result, they are not in a crystalline state. As frozen water continues to accumulate on top of existing ice, it is compressed and any contaminated liquids are forced by gravity out of icebergs into seawater, leaving behind only an iceberg consisting of fresh water. In a natural environment, this process takes several years. The experts at FreeDeWaTER transferred this principle to a system they developed themselves that uses cooling to convert contaminated water into a state of partial crystallization. It is then processed in a separation unit – also developed and patented in-house – to allow the concentrate to be removed independently of the ice. Ice produced in this manner contains no liquid elements and thus no impurities, making it suitable as drinking water. From switching on the device to producing potable water, this fully automated process only takes several minutes.

The system developed by FreeDeWaTER produces impressive results, especially compared to solutions already available on the market. Not only does it take very little time to produce drinking water, but the system can also be switched on or off at any time, offering plenty of flexibility when it comes to operating the water treatment device. This is a particularly important factor in areas with no access to reliable electricity. In addition, the technology allows for the use of renewables. Until now, this has only been possible by using expensive batteries, which are difficult to combine with other systems due to their volatility. Because – unlike existing solutions – the innovative device developed by FreeDeWaTER is not based on reverse osmosis or evaporation, but relies instead on freeze crystallization, it requires very little energy. Instead, it uses the natural processes of seawater or industrial water crystallization to remove impurities. This eliminates the need for consumables or costly purification processes. It also makes it possible to produce small-scale devices for remote use by private individuals. Systems based on the process of freeze crystallization have not been available on the water treatment market until now, so as such, they are a novelty.

The target group of the new system comprises all people with no access to drinking water, for example in remote regions or disaster areas. The startup plans to market its system to people working in disaster relief (such as technical relief agencies), firefighters, the military, aid organizations, as well as yacht manufacturers. A pilot prototype has already been engineered and FreeDeWaTER is currently preparing intensively for serial production. It is also looking for and discussing options with potential investors.

MELT plates – the next generation of heat accumulators

MELT-Ing, a green technology spin-off of Mannheim University of Applied Sciences and the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Smart Manufacturing Solutions, develops, produces, and markets large, fully scalable latent heat storage systems. Its so-called MELT plates, which are used in areas such as building envelopes, make it possible to store significant amounts of heat at temperatures suitable for a variety of applications.

Here’s how it works: Melting macroencapsulated filler materials consumes large amounts of thermal energy, which is released again during solidification. The products developed by MELT make use of this effect and are thus able to store significantly larger amounts of heat than is possible with conventional (and sensitive) storage materials such as water. Introducing phase change materials (PCMs) with specific melting points to building envelopes allows those materials to buffer temperature fluctuations at exactly the required temperature. This makes it possible to store heat on an individual basis, depending on customer preferences and local climatic conditions. As a result, heating systems can be switched off on cloudy days and areas directly under roofs are not so hot when the sun shines.

The requirement to use large-scale thermal storage systems is primarily driven by the increasing prevalence of heat pumps and, with that, the use of renewables to provide heating. This is an important and positive development, although there are natural fluctuations in the availability of renewable energy. The storage systems developed by MELT provide the required solutions to deal with gaps in the availability of renewable energy, such as at night or during periods of low wind. This helps the customers of MELT protect both the climate and their finances, since renewables are already the most cost-effective form of energy, regardless of whether people use their own solar panels or dynamic electricity tariffs. An additional effect is that people make more use of their own photovoltaic or small wind power systems, reducing grid load. In the winter, storage tanks offer a complement to heat pumps and in the summer, they offer protection from overheating.

Currently, the plates are mainly used in prefabricated wood construction or serial renovations. They are mostly being installed as an add-on to insulation, for example as 1.2cm thin coverings inside rooms. This is the equivalent thermal storage capacity of a 25cm thick concrete wall. The system is primarily being introduced to the market through a partnership between MELT-Ing and Willi Mayer, a Bisingen-based specialist in timber construction. Mayer designs and builds wooden homes. Adding MELT plates to its repertoire makes it possible to construct according to eco-efficiency building standards, something previously unattainable for the company.

The materials, which come in a choice of melting points, pose no health risk, use no fossil resources, and are non-flammable. In addition to stabilizing indoor temperatures, MELT plates can be used in a variety of other applications. One example is cold storage in refrigerated vehicles. With an increasing number of delivery vehicles now using electric motors, having to power refrigeration units has detrimental impacts on battery range. Adding thermal storage units in the form of MELT plates – which, like vehicle batteries, are charged overnight – compensates for this. MELT plates also make refrigerated storage less vulnerable to power outages. Other areas of use include applications requiring load shifting and narrow temperature ranges.

The young founders of MELT, Dr.-Ing. Sebastian Sonnick and Frederik Wunder, have gained experience in the development of products and energy-efficient systems through CeMOS at Mannheim University of Applied Sciences and the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Smart Manufacturing Solutions. As co-founder, Matthias Rädle supported the startup with his expertise. All three are united by their mission to play an active and creative role in the energy and heating revolution.


Prof. Dr. Matthias Rädle (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Smart Manufacturing Solutions (Mannheim)