(from right to left) Dr. Winfried Barkhausen, Edwin Büchter and Philipp Soest of cleansort stand side by side in a production hall 

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2022-10-01 publication

The long road to success

For Philipp Soest and his co-founders, it took seven years to get from the idea to the first real-life application. Their company cleansort now develops and produces laser-based systems for sorting valuable materials. 

By Tim Schröder

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

The staying power it can sometimes take to get your own company on its feet is shown by the example of cleansort from Rösrath, near Cologne. “It all started seven years ago with a joint project where we brought three companies together, including a project development company I worked for at the time and cleanLASER,” says the mechanical engineer and Managing Director, Philipp Soest. The project was funded by the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU). Although two partners gradually left as their research questions were answered, the funding and collaboration continued with cleanLASER. cleansort produces sorting systems that analyze scrap steel on a conveyor belt with the help of a laser. The difficulty with recycling is that not all steel is the same. Each steel consists of a different mix of chemical elements – iron, manganese or chromium, for example. The steel’s properties depend on which elements it contains and how much of each. To turn scrap metal into high-quality recycled steel with the desired properties, the mixture has to be just right. But scrap usually consists of a mixture of different steels. The laser in the cleansort system heats a tiny spot on the surface of a piece of scrap, vaporizes the material to create a plasma and then analyzes its chemical composition. This allows the system to accurately sort pieces of scrap. The pieces are mixed to ensure a steel melt with exactly the right composition. The laser is fast enough to work with scrap moving on a conveyor belt, just like a scanner. 

“The experts at the DBU and the other managing partners believed in the idea the whole time. That was important because I’d never have been able to pull off this development on my own. It requires too much plant technology for that.” In 2018, he and these partners finally founded the company cleansort. “Seven years later, we’re now in the right place at the right time. It’s now clear to many people how important it is to keep raw materials in the country and recycle them to a high quality so that we are less dependent on imports.” What has the long startup phase taught him? Two things: never lose enthusiasm despite occasional setbacks and believe in the success of your own idea. Only then can you convince potential partners, says Soest.