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 rationale of the research programme is twofold: First, it explores the fundamentals of solid-state based new technologies and strategies for a future green ICT. The focus lies on the development of highly energy-efficient concepts and processes for the storage and processing of information. Second, the programme will tackle material-related fundamental problems and microscopic mechanisms in the fields of energy harvesting, conversion and storage.
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.
Securing expertise in core technologies
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
A central element of Germany’s energiewende, or energy transition, is the safe decommissioning of nuclear facilities, which poses tremendous challenges for science, technology and industry. KIT has founded the Competence Center for Decommissioning in order to maintain expertise on the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and to expand this expertise at a practical level. This Center is part of the Helmholtz programme “Nuclear Waste Management, Safety and Radiation Research” (NUSAFE).
The decommissioning of nuclear facilities encompasses innovative decommissioning technologies, the radiological characterization of contaminated plant components, decontamination and conditioning technologies, and the protection of the staff, population, and the environment against exposure to radiation. Additional important elements are the management of complex processes, analysis of political and social conditions, and s trategies for appropriately involving and informing the public. The newly founded KIT Center is able to draw on extensive expertise and a highly effective infrastructure. Emphasis is placed on professional training and continuing education of young scientists and engineers in this fi eld over the long term. In 2008, KIT established a professorship for decommissioning of conventional and nuclear facilities – the only one of its kind in Germany. The KIT-affi liated AREVA Nuclear Professional School also offers a continuing education programme in this fi eld.
The Competence Center for Decommissioning is part of the Cluster for the Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities established in February 2016. This Cluster pools the expertise of fi ve partners from three countries to provide a more stable foundation for professional training. Its founding members are KIT as coordinator, the Karlsruhe Cooperative State University, Stuttgart University with its Institute of Nuclear Technology and Energy Systems and its Materials Testing Institute, the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, the Institute for Transuranium Elements in Karlsruhe, and the Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements in Belgium. The latter two institutes are part of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.
Wendelstein 7-x fusion device in operation
Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP)
On 3 February 2016, after nine years of construction, the first hydrogen plasma began to glow in the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald. At the push of a button, chancellor Angela Merkel caused a microwave heating pulse to transform a tiny amount of gas into an ultra-thin plasma that reached temperatures of 10 million degrees. Following the device’s launch with helium plasma in December 2015, the way is now clear for further experimentation. Wendelstein 7-X is the world’s largest stellarator and will be used to study the suitability of this type of device as a power plant.
Liquid metall cell developed on a laboratory scale
Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR)
A new type of battery consisting of three stably stratified liquid layers is considered a promising candidate for the large-scale stationary storage of electrical energy. It uses abundant and thus inexpensive materials and can potentially be charged and discharged as often as desired. The HZDR prototype relies on a top layer of sodium as anode, a bottom layer of bismuth as cathode, and a molten salt mixture sandwiched between them as ionic conductor. The cell needs elevated temperatures to operate, but delivers exceptionally high current densities.
New ideas for lighter and more stable rotor blades
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
How can wind plants produce electricity more efficiently in future? In the Smart Blades project, researchers from the Research Alliance for Wind Energy, cooperating with the DLR, the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology, and the ForWind university research centre, have developed intelligent rotor blades that can adapt to natural wind conditions. One technology makes use of blades that can passively adjust to wind speed using, for example, a bend-twist coupling. Another involves mounting active control elements such as movable trailing edges on rotor blades in order to allow them to respond to different aerodynamic loads and to use the wind turbine more efficiently.
Photosynthesis for a sustainable energy supply
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ
Hydrogen could play an important role in replacing fossil fuels. UFZ scientists are now using cyanobacteria to obtain hydrogen. With the help of sunlight, these single-cell organisms can produce electricity and hydrogen from water. They usually harness sunlight for their metabolic processes in order to multiply and grow. The researchers are now working on ways to selectively shift their metabolism towards the production of hydrogen as an energy source – an approach that is more cost-effective and climate-friendly than previously tested alternatives.
New efficiency record for hydrogen produced from sunlight
Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB)
In order to chemically store energy from the sun, working groups at the HZB are developing complex material systems that use sunlight to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen. In summer 2015, an international team succeeded in substantially increasing the efficiency of direct solar water splitting. For this purpose they used extremely powerful tandem solar cells and selectively modifi ed their surfaces. The new efficiency record is 14 per cent, well above the previous record of 12.4 per cent, held for 17 years.
Thermal energy storage for city districts
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences
For years a major part of the energy supply of the German Parliament in Berlin has been recovered heat and chill from the seasonal storage systems in the underground. But what about entire city districts? This is where ATES (Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage) comes in, a project run by the GFZ, Technische Universität Berlin and Universität der Künste Berlin. GFZ has completed drilling a research well in the heart of Berlin that extends down 500 metres to layers of the Earth that contain salt water called aquifers. A research facility was established to investigate options for seasonal storage of heat from cogeneration plants, solar installations and other sources. With reliable concepts for the thermal supply of urban quarters ATES will contribute to the further development of this environmental friendly technology.