Foto © Takeda Manufacturing Austria AG

Steam without gas

by Oxana Schmidt

·   Start of the NEFI Project AHEAD with an innovative steam-generating heat pump operated with 100 percent natural refrigerants

·   More sustainable drug production at Takeda through innovative high-temperature heat pump system


On January 25, 2023, the new NEFI Project AHEAD (Advanced Heat Pump Demonstrator) was presented in Vienna, in collaboration with the biopharmaceutical company Takeda, the Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation, and Technology (BMK), the Climate and Energy Fund, and the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT).

Under the leadership of the AIT Center for Energy, a steam-generating heat pump will be integrated for the first time in an industrial operation. The gas-free steam generation aims to achieve a CO₂ reduction of up to 90 percent at one of Takeda's largest drug manufacturing sites in Vienna while using exclusively natural refrigerants. This technological flagship project underlines Austria's leading role in high-temperature heat pump research and aims to serve as a practical example for the entire pharmaceutical industry, as well as many other industrial companies and sectors that want to make their processes CO₂-free.

The innovation of this project lies in the steam-generating heat pump, which operates exclusively with 100 percent natural refrigerants and is combined with steam compressors to achieve the highest heat utilization temperatures to date. The AHEAD system can reach temperatures of 200-260°C, while Takeda requires 184°C for steam supply.

Volker Schaffler, Head of the Department of Energy and Environmental Technologies at the Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation, and Technology (BMK), emphasizes: "Austria has committed to becoming climate-neutral by 2040. This important step requires joint efforts, and Austria's industry is a key player in this regard. The challenge is that not all areas of sustainable production, generation, storage, and conversion of renewable energy have ready-made solutions. This requires research, development, and, above all, demonstration under real conditions – just as Takeda is implementing it here at the Vienna site. Industry, research, and administration must work hand in hand on the solutions, implementations, and necessary framework conditions required to achieve climate and energy goals. The funding opportunities provided by the BMK are a central lever for overcoming these challenges."

Bernd Vogl, Managing Director of the Climate and Energy Fund, says: "Industry is one of the key drivers for achieving European and national climate goals: about one-third of the total energy is consumed here, and the sector accounts for almost 50 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. To become climate-neutral, a comprehensive transformation is needed. This mammoth task cannot be tackled by a single entity alone. To make industrial processes more sustainable, innovative technologies need to be developed, and companies, research institutions, and the public sector must work hand in hand – as is the case with this project, 'AHEAD.' I am very proud that through our showcase region for energy, 'NEFI – New Energy for Industry,' we can contribute our part."

Wolfgang Hribernik, Head of the Center for Energy at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and NEFI Network Coordinator, emphasizes: "Heat pumps will be a key element of the future energy infrastructure, also in an industrial context. The AHEAD project sets a new milestone with the development of a steam-generating heat pump operated exclusively with natural refrigerants at 11 bar and 184°C. In the temperature range below 200°C, the use of industrial high-temperature heat pumps has enormous potential because 37 percent of the process heat demand of the European industry falls into this range. With the NEFI innovation network, we have the opportunity to scientifically accompany and test new key technologies like this with industrial users. This reduces the technical and economic risk for companies on the path to decarbonization."

Heating and cooling are very energy-intensive

The AHEAD research project takes a pioneering role and provides an environmentally friendly solution for steam supply in industrial processes. A significant portion of the process heat demand in drug production has so far been mainly met by natural gas. In the AHEAD project, this is no longer necessary as an innovative heat pump system is being established. It consists of a steam-generating heat pump from SPH Sustainable Process Heat GmbH, which is combined with steam compressors to generate steam at 11 bar(a)/184°C. This achieves a CO₂ reduction of up to 90 percent and over seven months of complete CO₂ emission-free operation per year, using only natural refrigerants, at one of Takeda's largest drug manufacturing sites located at Lange Allee 24 in Vienna. This corresponds to 1,900 tons of CO₂ per year and is an important milestone towards achieving Takeda's global sustainability goals of operating its facilities with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

Veronika Wilk, AHEAD Project Manager at AIT, explains: "The AIT Center for Energy will develop an optimized operational strategy for the AHEAD system with a comprehensive system model. A novel approach will be developed for CO₂ reduction potential. This combines process requirements and expected process changes, learning curves for high-temperature heat pumps based on the project's experiences, and statistical data."

The technical challenge

In the future, AHEAD will utilize the existing heat from the heating water system through an additional specialized heat pump for steam generation. The technical challenge lies in the fact that, due to the high temperatures, there may be thermal issues in the compressor or problems with the refrigeration machine oil. Moreover, most conventional refrigerants are not suitable for such high temperatures. SPH Sustainable Process Heat GmbH has already developed a heat pump that can deliver up to 165°C and is based on a piston compressor. This heat pump will now be adapted for the use of natural refrigerants to first heat the heating water from 65 to approximately 130°C and evaporate it. This steam will be compressed to 11 bar and heated to over 184°C, as required for drug production.

Furthermore, a concept for implementing the AHEAD system at other Takeda sites in Austria and worldwide will be developed in the research project. Additionally, the decarbonization potential of this technology for other important industry sectors with high energy consumption, such as the paper, chemical, and food industries, will be examined in Austria. AHEAD is expected to start operating at the end of 2024, with the final evaluation taking place by the end of 2025.

The entire press kit and press photos can be found at:

Further information about the AHEAD project can be found here: AHEAD - Advanced Heat Pump Demonstrator | NEFI.