Research Field Energy
Global bottlenecks are predictable - in the reliable supply of energy and the safe disposal and treatment of wastes, residues and emissions. Helmholtz energy researchers are looking for solutions to meet the needs of present and future generations.
The Helmholtz scientists involved in the field of energy research are working to develop solutions to secure an economically, ecologically and socially sustainable supply of energy.
They are examining all the relevant energy chains, including technological and socioeconomic conditions and impacts on the climate and environment. One important goal is to replace fossil and nuclear fuels with sustainable climate-neutral energy sources. Scientists are also seeking to determine the potential of renewables such as solar, biomass and geothermal energy. They are working to increase the efficiency of conventional power plants and energy use as a whole. Finally, the Helmholtz Association is researching nuclear fusion in order to develop a new source of energy over the long term, and its scientists are experts in the area of nuclear safety research.
The energy transition is one of the greatest challenges for the present and the future. In its 6th Energy Research Programme, the German government focuses on strategies and technologies that are vital for restructuring energy supplies: renewables, energy efficiency, energy storage and grid technologies. The Helmholtz Association strongly supports the German government’s strategy and, by providing expertise and experience, is making a major contribution to its implementation. In addition, it is closing research gaps and seeking to achieve more rapid progress in all relevant fields. Helmholtz research engages with a broad spectrum of options and devotes as much attention to basic research as to application-oriented studies. Furthermore, the Helmholtz Association is supplementing technological topics with socioeconomic research in order to optimise energy systems with respect to all social, economic and political factors.
The programmes in the funding period 2015-2019
The field of energy research at the Helmholtz Association consists of eight Helmholtz centres: the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the Forschungszentrum Jülich, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB), the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR), the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, and, finally, the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) as an associate member of the Helmholtz Association.
The research field "Energy" is divided into seven research programmes. All the programmes are implemented in interdisciplinary working groups and international collaborations. The association provides research infrastructure, resources for large-scale experiments, pilot facilities, test systems for large components, high-performance analysis systems and high-capacity computers.
This research programme combines the need for greater efficiency in energy production and consumption of resources with the development of new materials.
This programme investigates and further develops innovative technologies that complement an energy system based on the consumption of renewables.
This newly conceived programme is dedicated to the research and development of energy storage systems and efficient infrastructures designed to balance the volatile supply of renewables, and to address the different challenges posed by energy transmission and distribution.
The aim of this cross-disciplinary programme is to research the environmental, economic, political, ethical and social aspects of new technologies in order to support decision-making processes in politics, the economy and society as a whole.
This research programme addresses safety issues related to nuclear waste management, including the long-term safety of final storage repositories and the safety of nuclear power plants.
Involved Helmholtz Centres
Insights into Research Field Energy
Here, we present projects currently being carried out by scientists at the Helmholtz Centres.
Pilot Plant Produces Biogasoline
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
In the multistage process at KIT’s bioliq plant, synthetic gasoline is made from straw and other biological residues. The synthesis stage has now been successfully implemented and fuel has been produced for the very first time. This means the plant is now fully assembled. The last step will be to test the complete process chain and optimise it for large-scale industrial use.
The entire bioliq (“biomass to liquid”) process consists of four stages. In the first, dry residual biomass such as straw that accumulates in fields and has a low energy content is converted into a substance similar to crude oil with a high energy density. Flash pyrolysis – the thermal decomposition of organic matter – forms the basis of this process. The crude-oil-like substance can be transported over long distances in a cost-effective manner and centrally processed. In a high-pressure entrained flow gasifier, it is converted into a tar-free syngas at temperatures above 1,200 °C and pressures of up to 80 bar. The syngas consists primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. In the subsequent hot gas purification process, impurities such as particulate matter and chlorine and nitrogen compounds are removed. Finally, in the synthesis stage, the purified gas is formed into a customised, high-quality fuel.
In terms of its design, the plant has been specially adapted to the properties of the CO2-rich syngas that is produced by biological residues. Using the pilot plant, researchers can test innovations directly on an industrial scale to ensure that findings can be commercialised more quickly.
The construction of the pilot plant on KIT’s northern campus was funded by the German federal government, the state of Baden-Württemberg and the European Union. Several industrial partners are involved in the bioliq plant along with numerous institutes and service units at KIT.
Microorganisms Filter Uranium out of Groundwater
Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR)
In a planned Finnish repository for highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, HZDR researchers have discovered bacteria that can convert dissolved uranium into needle-like crystals. As their investigations show, these crystals consist of a uranyl phosphate mineral that forms in the process. In this way, the microorganisms filter radioactive material out of water and bind it. This means they can also reduce the bioavailability of uranium – and the probability that it will pass into the human food chain.
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ
Biogas plays an important role as a renewable energy source – there are now around 7,700 biogas plants in Germany. Effective plant operation is necessary for optimal output, and disruptions such as uncontrolled foaming – the consequences of which range from reduced output to damaged containers – must be avoided. UFZ researchers have developed the “Leipzig foam tester” as a counter-measure. In 2014 this device was awarded the IQ Innovation Prize of the City of Leipzig.
Wendelstein 7-X Fusion Device Soon to Go into Operation
Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP)
After years of planning, production and assembly, final preparations began in May 2014 for the operation of Wendelstein 7-X, the world’s largest stellarator fusion device. The plant’s technical systems are currently being tested in a step-by-step process: the vacuum, the cooling system, the specially shaped superconducting coils and the magnetic field they generate. “If everything works properly, the system will be able to generate the first plasma in about a year,” says project manager Thomas Klinger. The goal is to demonstrate the viability of a stellarator power plant.
Fusion Researchers Control Plasma for Record Time
Nuclear fusion reproduces the processes taking place inside the sun. One of the most important questions in developing this technology is how the unstable, difficult-to-control fusion reaction can be sustained for a prolonged period of time. A team led by Jülich fusion researcher Yunfeng Liang has now developed a new method for further confining the uncontrolled plasma discharges. Using radio waves, they were able to sustain a high-energy plasma for a record 30 seconds at the experimental fusion reactor EAST in China.
Even Thinner Solar Cells through the Use of Nanoparticles
Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB)
Nanostructures could be used to direct more light into the active layer of solar cells, thereby increasing their efficiency. Martina Schmid (HZB and the FU Berlin) has measured how irregularly distributed silver particles change the absorption of light. She showed that nanoparticles interact via their electromagnetic near-fields, creating local hot spots where the light is most highly concentrated. Her findings will help researchers design nanostructures that increase solar cell efficiency.
A Bypass System to Study Microbial Metabolic Processes in Geothermal Systems
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences
In collaboration with industry partners, scientists from the GFZ have developed a mobile bypass system for geothermal plants. With the help of the bypass, researchers can carry out on-site investigations of the effects of microbial metabolic processes on precipitation and corrosion at different temperatures. In terms of the size and shape of the material samples, the system can be adapted to site-specific conditions and can be used in different areas of a plant. The goal is to develop effective measures to mitigate microbiologically influenced plant disturbances.
Dr. Tobias Sontheimer
Research Field Energy
Helmholtz Head Office
+49 30 206329-17
tobias.sontheimer (at) helmholtz.de
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