‘Die Sinalco schmeckt, die Sinalco schmeckt’ (‘Sinalco tastes good, Sinalco tastes great’) is an advertising jingle that has been instantly recognizable in Germany since 1979. Everyone knows it is about a fizzy drink. But in addition to Sinalco lemonade, the family-owned company Rheinfelsquellen H. Hövelmann also markets a range of mineral water products including Rheinfels Quelle, Römerwall and Burgwallbronn. Filling and, in particular, washing re-usable bottles for these products uses a lot of electricity and steam. Since the middle of 2016, some of that power and heat has been generated by a compact cogeneration plant supplied by MTU Onsite Energy to the company’s HQ in Duisburg-Walsum.
The vast production halls are criss-crossed by a complex system of conveyor belts with bottles and more bottles as far as the eye can see. “Last year we filled a total of 748 million bottles,” enthused Torsten Schneider, Technical Director at RheinfelsQuellen. “That makes us the sixth biggest producer of mineral water products in Germany.”
The number of glass and re-usable PET bottles needed for that sort of sales volume obviously involves high levels of energy and, in particular, steam consumption in the production process. “The empty used bottles and crates are returned to us direct from the supermarkets,” explained Schneider. “Our strong commitment to sustainable and environmentally friendly production means we aim to re-use bottles as often as possible. Plastic bottles can be washed up to 20 times and glass bottles up to 50 times”.
From spring to bottle
Mineral water is a pure, natural product. The water for the company’s ‘Rheinfels Quelle’ and other brands comes directly from a mineral water source deep below the Rheinaue nature conservation area. Over 25,000 years ago, this is where rainwater collected at a depth of 300 meters after slowly trickling down through many different layers of earth and stone. “That is why mineral water always tastes different at different places,” explained Schneider. “As it trickles down, the water is filtered and purified and at the same time it also absorbs valuable minerals.” To give the natural mineral water its bubbly character, we introduce various amounts of carbon dioxide – depending on whether the product is to be still, medium or fizzy. The water is then ready for bottling. “Our Sinalco soft drink is also based on the mineral water – we just add the syrup required,” said Schneider. “That is not the way it is done everywhere. Other producers do not use high-quality mineral water.”
At the RheinfelsQuellen facility the forklift trucks dart everywhere. Crates of empty bottles are unloaded from delivery trucks and transferred to the production areas where virtually everything is automated. The bottles are individually removed from the crates and placed on a conveyor. Crates go directly to the washing plant whilst caps and labels are first removed from the bottles before inspection by the ‘sniffer’. This unit rapidly sniffs out whether consumers have used the bottles for other fluids such as alcohol, gasoline or even lemonade. If they have, the bottles are rejected. “We need large quantities of steam for the cleaning process,” said Schneider. “That is one of the main reasons we opted for the compact cogeneration module from MTU Onsite Energy.”
The plant is scheduled to operate for around 6,000 hours every year. “We can already be sure of making significant savings on electricity and heating costs thanks to the MTU Onsite Energy cogeneration plant,” confided Schneider. “The high base-load level means we can save even more on energy costs than was forecast. We are very satisfied right across the board.”
The MTU Series 4000 compact cogeneration module is fitted with a steam generator unit and generates 1,282 kW of electric power. “The heat from the exhaust gas (around 440°C) is fed into the steam plant where it generates hot water that is routed to the production facilities. The hot water is stored in three intermediate buffer tanks to ensure there is always enough to heat up the soapy solution in the washers.
“First of all, the bottles are loaded in baskets and repeatedly rinsed with clear water. Then they are washed in a 2% soda solution at a temperature of 54°C for 9 minutes before again being rinsed repeatedly,” said Schneider describing the washing process. “The washing plant is one of our major consumers of heat and electricity. In winter, we can also use the hot water to heat the production halls.” The hot water generation process is also supported by engine heat produced in the cogeneration module at around 90°C.
After washing, the bottles are conveyed directly to the empty bottle inspection unit where they are thoroughly inspected by cameras. Any that are not 100% clean or that show signs of damage are immediately removed and then destroyed. Deliberately soiled bottles are regularly introduced into the flow to check that the inspection units are working correctly. Labels are applied after the bottles have been passed as clean and ready for filling. No adhesive is needed for PET bottles (labels are simply pulled on like sleeves) but it is required for labeling glass bottles. Finally, the bottles are filled with the relevant drink and sealed before starting their journey back to the supermarket and the consumer – and their eventual return to the RheinfelsQuellen facility once more after use.
Europe’s first modern soft drink
In 1902, Franz Hartmann, a factory owner in the city of Detmold, and the naturopathic practitioner Friedrich Eduard Bilz together produced a unique fruity concoction. Called the ‘Bilz-Brause’ the new type of drink was a hit with the public and soon enjoyed soaring sales success. The only thing missing was a catchy brand name. A large-scale name-finding competition was held and ‘Bilz-Brause’ became ‘Sinalco’. The name comes from the Latin for ‘without alcohol’.
Sinalco was the first soft-drink brand on the European continent and in 1934, it was joined by Sinalco Kola that was designed to meet competition from America. Over the following years, Sinalco drinks experienced a marketing boom and at one time were available in 150 countries throughout the world. The brand changed hands several times and its popularity declined until 1994 when the beverage group Hövelmann invested in a comeback for the fizzy drink product and successfully pepped up its fortunes. Today, the brand once more enjoys a solid position on supermarket shelves and in consumer cool-boxes. And, by way of well-deserved recognition: Sinalco is among around 300 brands included in the 2007 publication ‘German Standards – Brands of the Century’ – even appearing on the front cover.