Max Fries (right) and Timur Sirman. Photo: Klaus Mai


Authors: Aaron Baur, Matthias Voigt, July 12, 2022
Translated by Timur Sirman
Link to the original publication (in German):

Until today, many cooling systems are harmful to the environment and climate. The deep-tech startup MAGNOTHERM, based in Darmstadt, Germany, has developed a solution to this problem without any problematic gases, which do not contribute to global warming - and promises high market potential.

The more climate change progresses, the greater the demand for systems that cool
cool goods or buildings. "The demand for cooling is rising and will further increase, especially for building air conditioning systems where we expect a sixfold increase by 2050," is the assessment of Dr. Max Fries. The entrepreneur founded the startup in 2019 with three former colleagues and two acquaintances from his doctoral days. Together, they are working on a solution to make cooling systems energy-saving and climate-friendly.

According to Max Fries, already today almost 20 percent of electrical energy is used for cooling. "This generates eight percent of all greenhouse gases." The inventors from Darmstadt want to change this with a technical innovation.

Instead of gas-liquid-mixtures, magnetocaloric materials are used in their cooling systems. These are solids such as metal that are heated by a magnetic field, while water is used as a transfer medium. The heat is then dissipated so that the material returns to its original temperature. If the magnetic field is now removed, the material cools down and is at a lower temperature level than at the beginning.
temperature level than at the beginning. This allows the material to absorb heat until the the initial temperature is reached again.

Conventional cooling systems are quite different. They are based almost exclusively on a gas compression cycle. In this process, gases are compressed and expanded. The problem is that the gases volatilize and are highly harmful to the environment and climate. This is why they are currently being progressively banned by the European Union. MAGNOTHERM's new method offers several advantages: "The environment is not harmed because the metal and all other materials used can be recycled," explains Max Fries. In addition, the new process is more energy efficient and causes less global warming than the gas compression. The cooling process also does not require flammable, toxic, or explosive substances such as ammonia, butane or propane.

Research in the field of magnetocalorics has been going on for a long time. Not least by Dr. Oliver Gutfleisch, Professor of Functional Materials at the TU Darmstadt. In 25 years of research, he has acquired knowledge that only a few have and which he is now incorporating into MAGNOTHERM's work.
On this task, experts from various disciplines and backgrounds such as materials science, mechanical engineering and computer simulation are working closely together. In addition to Max Fries and Oliver Gutfleisch, the team includes Dr. Tino Gottschall, postdoc at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, Dimitri Benke, Jeffrey Pickett and Timur Sirman, who belong to the Magnotherm's inner circle.

Several advantages over cooling with gas

The start-up has almost tripled its staff in a short time. In total, the company, which was founded in Darmstadt in 2019 currently employs around 20 people, as MAGNOTHERM's concept has already attracted interest.  After a three-year start-up phase and the development of the team applied for the "Science4Life" business plan competition and won. In addition, the founders submitted a funding application for the "Exist" program of the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection. A total of 1.23 million million euros from this funding program went to MAGNOTHERM, which the team invested in the development of a prototype for magnetocaloric cooling systems.

A Huge Market Potential

The start-up procures its components for the prototypes from all over the world, because it is not easy to obtain the necessary materials  - and for the founders, it is also not always ethically unobjectionable. "The rare earths for the magnets come from China, we're honest about that," says Max Fries. "But we also rely on recycled material from Europe." This is also where the majority of the company's customers come from here. Sales of the products also extend beyond the EU's borders. The international team works globally because countries like the U.S. offer a huge market potential and MAGNOTHERM thinks already largely. As customers the Darmstädter won among supermarkets that want to use the new process to reduce their energy consumption. "Our systems can save a lot of money in a short time, even though they are more expensive to purchase," says Max Fries. In the medium term, MAGNOTHERM also plans to focus on individual solutions for IT and electronics cooling as well as air conditioning systems. Currently, the young founders are focusing on room temperature applications. "That's where we see the biggest market opportunities," explains Max Fries.

Financing is the biggest hurdle at first

In order to take advantage of these market opportunities, MAGNOTHERM needs additional capital. This is currently the biggest hurdle for the young company, says Max Fries: "Our financing is very expensive because we build and develop hardware. Unlike an IT startup, where only computers and personnel are needed, we have additional high costs for materials and infrastructure."
Currently, the team is closing a promising round of funding from an EU funding program called the EIC Accelerator. In Germany, however, the situation is not nearly as easy as in the European Union, says the entrepreneur. He would have liked more support: "German investors are very conservative when it comes to investing in business models that are not 100 percent secure or outside of digital."
True, the company receives many inquiries outside the EU. Nevertheless, it is targeting European investors. "We see this as a strategic decision because ultimately we come from European research funding. A lot of money is flowing into our start-up from Europe and we think the technology should then stay in Europe," Max Fries emphasizes.

For this reason, MAGNOTHERM is currently relying on Dutch and Scandinavian investors. The founder has found that they are more determined to invest in sustainability than is the case in Germany, for example. He suspects that the reason for this is the prevailing mindset there, which corresponds to the start-up's self-image: the topics of responsibility and sustainability have a high value for the MAGNOTHERM team - and that along the entire value chain.

What's next?

MAGNOTHERM's next goal? "To bring a finished system to market, replacing old equipment and technology," describes Max Fries, "to drive the energy transition in the long term and offer green, CO 2-free cooling that gets global attention."