Heating with brown coal briquettes? Didn’t they used to do that 50 years ago? That’s what you think! Today, the little energy packets have again become an attractive fuel for many people. Which is why the Frechen briquette factory is firing up its production.
The huge wheel digs incessantly through the earth, its powerful scoops grindingly bury themselves into the sand and gravel masses. The excavator is as big and as heavy as a bridge over the Rhine. Once it has dug away the surface, the brown coal beneath is liberated to be transported away. Raw material for power generation – and raw material for briquettes.
First millions were burned, then given the cold shoulder: the triumph of central heating appeared to have completely banned the briquettes from apartments back in the 1960’s. Before that time, there were roughly 50 briquette factories in Rhineland alone, but today there are only two left in all of Germany. But ever since fireplaces and tiled stoves have started becoming popular again, either to save energy costs or simply because they radiate a cozier warmth, the classical little heaters are returning to the family hearth.
One person who is definitely overjoyed with this development is Wolfgang Dülfer, head of the Frechen factory. The facility, owned by RWE Power, produces brown coal dust for industrial use and briquettes. “Demand is growing again,” says the 50-year-old, “and we certainly don’t have a shortage of coal here in Rhineland.” The neighboring open-pit mines Hambach and Garzweiler are packed with enough of the raw material to last for the next 50 years. Brown coal is used primarily for power generation, but a small percentage ends up in Frechen where it is crushed, dried and then pressed into briquettes using pressures of roughly 1,000 bar. “The advantage of this process is that we don’t use binding agents because they can release harmful compounds when burned,” explains Dülfer.
A briquette doesn’t look very spectacular but it does offer a technological challenge. Right now, a new strapping system is being installed on the packaging line. Ralph Germeshausen, responsible at TITAN for sales and application technology, is on the site. He and Wolfgang Dülfer have known each other for more than 20 years. “Nearly anyone can mass produce products such as strapping, but there are very few who are also able to offer the associated system technology,” says Dülfer. An additional aspect is that the technology must be able to function in a dusty atmosphere. Ralph Germeshausen adds, “Briquettes are a natural product. They have to be strapped into tight packets of 10 or 25 kg without breaking them.” In addition to the packets, 2,000 tons of palletized household briquettes have to be strapped every day. Roughly 30 systems made in Schwelm are currently operating here at the factory. “We have to be able to count on the reliability of the machines, which is why we chose TITAN,” says Dülfer. “If even one of the strapping machines fails, then our product remains unstrapped because we can’t just simply stop our production lines.”
A Future-Oriented Product with a Long Tradition
A new marketing line of solid fuels with names like “Heating Pro” and “Barbeque Pro” has been developed to ensure that the operation of the 106-year-old Frechen factory also hums during the summer months to keep the trade supplied all year round. Wolfgang Dülfer says, “A unique aspect of our business is certainly that we have kept the lowly briquette alive for more than 100 years by continually improving it to meet the most diverse demands and we are today still able to produce an economical product.”
Does brown coal really have a future? “The energy mix will not be able to do without brown coal,” says Dülfer’s. “We’re working in a very difficult political climate right now due to the CO2 discussions. We can’t argue that. All you can do in our position is ask yourself realistically: where can you optimally use which products in the future. We have to think far ahead, because we need a stable, long-term time frame to be able to plan, execute and re-naturalize open-pit mining operations.” Anyone interested is welcome to visit the Frechen factory and the Garzweiler open-pit mine. “We live under scrutiny of the public, we exploit land and re-naturalize it again. Our neighbors should learn exactly how this is done. Questions are important to us and welcomed.”