Research field "Energy"

Research field coordinator: Prof. Holger Hanselka, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Participating Helmholtz centres

  • Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
  • Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ)
  • German Aerospace Center (DLR)
  • Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB)
  • Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR)
  • Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
  • Helmholtz Centre Potsdam ‒ German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ)
  • Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP)

Programmes: From 2015, the research field will be dividing its activities between seven programmes:

  • Energy Efficiency, Materials and Resources
  • Renewable Energies
  • Storage and Cross-Linked Infrastructures
  • Future Information Technology – Fundamentals, Novel Concepts and Energy Efficiency (joint programme with the Key Technologies research field)
  • Technology, Innovation and Society (joint programme with the Key Technologies research field)
  • Nuclear Waste Management, Safety and Radiation Research
  • Nuclear Fusion

Scientific challenges

One of the biggest challenges facing us now and in the future is energy – how to provide it in a way that is safe, secure, affordable and environmentally friendly, and how to ensure that we use it efficiently. As part of its “energy transition”, Germany should, by 2050, be consuming half as much primary energy as it did in 2008 and be using renewable energies to cover at least 60 percent of its gross final energy consumption and 80 percent of its electricity consumption. The country’s greenhouse gas emissions should also have dropped by at least 80 percent from 1990 levels. The Helmholtz Association expressly supports the goals of the energy transition and is therefore pooling its scientific expertise and excellence, including through collaborating with other research facilities.
This work requires integrated research approaches that address all safe and environmentally friendly energy sources, all relevant conversion, distribution, storage and usage technologies, and all system relationships and social aspects. In the long-term, risky, polluting and finite energy sources will have to be replaced with alternatives that are climate-neutral, safe and will never run out. The scientists working in the Energy research field at the Helmholtz Association are rising to this challenge by developing scientific foundations, technological solutions and innovative concepts for the future. In line with the Helmholtz Association’s remit, the Energy research field is actively tackling the tasks currently facing politics, industry and society. The long-term perspective of Helmholtz research provides an ideal basis for the necessary transformation of Germany’s energy system. The research field coordinates its activities closely with industrial partners and works to fulfil its duty to make the requisite variety of technological options available.

Evaluator statements and recommendations for the Energy research field as a whole

The evaluators rated the scientific quality of all programmes and the participating centres as excellent by both national and international standards, and pointed to their particular strategic relevance for society, industry and research. The evaluator teams submitted a series of statements and recommendations that are key to the future development of the programmes. They also singled out a number of overarching aspects and made recommendations that apply to all programmes within the research field.

Talent management: The programme participants and the heads of the participating centres should build on their impressive HR development activities by putting in place a unified strategy for recruiting female scientists from internationally renowned research institutes.

Innovation management: Although all programmes are producing excellent scientific achievements, they have yet to fully exploit the potential of technology transfer. The team of evaluators therefore called for the development of a joint strategy for promoting innovation with industrial partners.

The strategic focus of the collaborative Technology, Innovation and Society programme should be strengthened so that the great socioeconomic relevance of the individual topics that the programme addresses is reflected within the research fields. The coordinators of the participating research fields and the programme spokesperson should, in collaboration with the programme’s international advisory committee, establish the frameworks necessary for strengthening cross-centre coherence within the programme and for bringing the programme more into line with the research strategies of the Energy and Key Technologies research fields.

The Energy System 2050 cross-programme initiative

The evaluators who evaluated the programmes Energy Efficiency, Materials and Resources (EMR), Renewable Energies (RE), Storage and Cross-Linked Infrastructures (SCI), and Technology, Innovation and Society (TIS) were impressed by the scientific quality of the research activities and by each programme’s strategic contribution to transforming the energy system. Although the evaluators held the activities of the individual programmes in particularly high regard, they recommended strengthening the systems approach in order to expand perceptions of the energy system as a whole and thus address the technological challenges of the energy transition. While individual programmes are pursuing research into energy systems analysis and grid integration, efforts to achieve the overall energy transition project could benefit greatly if the Energy research field were to engage in a comprehensive joint initiative based on the strategic research activities already being pursued.

The initiative’s mission should be to develop technological solutions for successfully integrating renewable energies into the energy system. This can be achieved by performing technology-oriented research and complementing it with a comprehensive energy system analysis involving all programmes in the Energy research field. The programmes’ contribution to the project should be based on their participants’ expertise and on the recommendations received during the evaluation process. The Future Information Technology (FIT) programme is to be integrated into the initiative so as to specifically address digitisation-related efforts to improve energy efficiency in the 21st century.

Funding recommendations for the Helmholtz Senate

The Energy research field is set to receive €370 million in funding in 2015. The funding is to grow by three percent annually over the five-year funding period so as to provide a targeted boost to the research field’s activities. It should, however, be noted that research policy guidelines exclude the Nuclear Fusion programme from sharing in the increase in funding for the Energy research field (cap on nuclear fusion), and that they place particular emphasis on programmes that support the German government’s energy transition plans. In total, €15 million from the budget of the increase will be made available to the cross-programme initiative Energy System 2050. A further €1.375 million each year will go towards the partial financing of the Helmholtz Institute Erlangen-Nürnberg for Renewable Energy Production – one of several institutes in the Energy research field that work with universities. The Helmholtz Institute Erlangen-Nürnberg allows close cooperation between Forschungszentrum Jülich, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin on specific areas of research.

Key priorities and evaluators’ assessments of the individual programmes within the research field

Energy Efficiency, Materials and Resources

Lead evaluator: Prof. Rachel Thomson, Loughborough University, UK

This research programme combines the need for greater efficiency in energy production and resource consumption with the development of new materials. In so doing, it brings together challenges from the fields of energy, materials and resources, and develops promising scientific and technological innovations that can help make industrial processes more efficient. The research is thus oriented towards the technological drivers of the energy market; it addresses the need for boosting the energy efficiency and flexibility of conventional central and decentralised power plants; and it works to develop technologies that have the potential to reduce energy consumption in industrial production. In addition, it promotes the development of materials with tailor-made properties for energy conversion systems and of flexible and efficient conversion processes and process chains. It is also finding ways to implement innovative technologies for improving energy and resource efficiency in raw minerals production and recycling. The evaluators confirmed that each of these topics contains elements that are world class and could adopt a leading role on the global stage. In particular, the team’s expertise in the field of power plant technologies presents opportunities that exist nowhere else in the world. Given the complex structure of the topic of materials development, the evaluators recommended establishing a good management structure and a system of coordination that uses synergies to maximise scientific added value.

Participating Helmholtz centres: DLR, FZJ, HZB, HZDR, KIT

Contact: Programme spokesperson: Prof. Manfred Aigner, German Aerospace Center; Press office: Andreas Schütz: +49 (0)2203 601 2474, andreas.schuetz(at)dlr.de


Renewable Energies

Lead evaluator: Prof. Ferdi Schüth, Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany

This programme’s strategy involves researching complementary technologies for making use of renewable energy sources, and addresses energy-related scientific questions that demand highly complex and long-term developments. Programme topics range from investigating new materials, highly efficient concentrating solar power systems, and solar cell concepts and components, to researching conversion processes for biomass and producing studies on geothermal energy systems. The programme also addresses two new topics: wind energy and the direct conversion of solar energy into fuel. The evaluators were impressed by the programme, both for its high scientific quality and the wide range of topics, which strikes a good balance between basic and applied research. The evaluators stated that the programme had excellent long-term prospects beyond the planned third programme-oriented funding period (POF III). The programme is a cornerstone of POF III and could strengthen its position even further by increasing the degree to which it integrates system aspects into its overall research strategy. In view of how important wind energy is to the energy transition, the evaluators value the fact that Helmholtz has begun activities in this area and view the current situation as a basis for achieving a high degree of originality in the future. The evaluator team stressed that the quality of the newly created Solar Fuels area is already excellent. They said that the topic stood out for the variety of research approaches it pursues and for the way it integrates them into its overall structure.

Participating Helmholtz Centres: DLR, FZJ, GFZ, HZB, KIT, UFZ

Contact: Programme spokesperson: Prof. Bernd Rech, Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie; Press office: Ina Helms, +49 (0)30 8062 42034, ina.helms(at)helmholtz-berlin.de


Storage and Cross-Linked Infrastructures

Lead evaluator: Prof. Jack Fletcher, University of Cape Town, South Africa

This newly established programme involves research into energy storage solutions, energy conversion technologies, and energy infrastructures. It specifically addresses the technologies that, within the context of the energy transition, are extremely important for a sustainable national energy system, which requires technologies for storing and distributing energy across the entire grid. It therefore connects research and development projects for thermal, electrical and chemical energy storage with process development, and incorporates research into distribution and storage infrastructures.

The evaluators feel that the programme is central to the research field because it brings together the non-nuclear programmes that are working to secure the technological developments needed to achieve the energy transition. They were impressed by the research and development activities, whose core topics are advanced by internationally renowned scientists. The evaluators thus acknowledged the undeniably high strategic relevance of research into mobile and stationary electrochemical storage. In the field of fuel cells, the evaluators rated the defined orientation of the work as excellent, saying that this was reflected in the very good structural coherence. In terms of the technological development of superconducting compounds, the evaluators noted that no comparable research activities are being carried out anywhere else in the world. The research projects in the field of grid structures, however, stood out for the strong interdisciplinary collaboration between engineering and economic sciences. The evaluators therefore recommended developing and implementing a clear focus and position for the activity.

Participating Helmholtz centres: KIT, DLR, FZJ, HZB, HZDR

Contact: Programme spokesperson: Prof. Mathias Noe, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; Press office: Monica Landgraf, +49 (0)721 608 47414, monika.landgraf(at)kit.edu


Future Information Technology (FIT) –
Fundamentals, Novel Concepts and Energy Efficiency

Lead evaluator: Prof A. Paul Alivisatos, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USA

Forschungszentrum Jülich and Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin both contribute to this programme, which brings together the research fields Energy and Key Technologies. The amount of energy being consumed by information and communication technologies has risen significantly in recent years. Thus the research goal is to increase the processing power, data storage density and data transfer rates of information technologies, while at the same time drastically reducing the amount of electricity needed by these technologies. To this end, the programme pursues a dual strategy. Firstly, scientists research radically new approaches to solid-state technologies and explore novel concepts aimed at markedly increasing the energy efficiency of future information and communication technologies (ICT) while reducing their energy consumption. Secondly, the programme selectively addresses material properties and their effects on energy production, conversion and storage. The team of evaluators confirmed that the scientific quality of the programme was excellent, and in parts even outstanding. They also pointed out the programme’s high strategic relevance for society and the economy. In addition, the evaluators said that parts of the programme were global leaders. The research into energy-efficient information technologies was described as being extremely relevant. The evaluators called for further intensification of the theoretical efforts being made within the programme and a greater use of the synergies that already exist between certain programme topics, so as to promote the ongoing development of the programme.

Participating Helmholtz centres: FZJ, HZB

Contact: Programme spokesperson: Prof. Rainer Waser, Forschungszentrum Jülich; Press office: Anne Rother, +49 (0)2461 61 4661, a.rother(at)fz-juelich.de


Technology, Innovation and Society

Lead evaluator: Prof. Harald Rohracher, Linköping University, Sweden

This collaborative programme, which brings together the research fields Key Technologies and Energy, addresses the non-technological aspects of the innovation process by examining the links between technological development and related changes in economic and environmental factors, political contexts and ethical questions. Within the two research fields, the programme combines interdisciplinary research in the areas of systems analysis, technology assessment, sustainability research, and risk and innovation research. This involves applying technology assessment approaches to new technological fields, delivering policy advice, and drawing up integral strategies for making optimum use of renewable energies within the confines of the associated risks and conflicts. The individual topics address highly relevant scientific questions and, in terms of overcoming major challenges and their impacts on society, are a fundamental part of the Helmholtz Association’s work. The evaluators confirmed that the scientific quality of the programme was high, but also suggested strategies for its further development. In particular, they criticised the structural integration of the research topics within the programme and the research field, the portfolio of selected research approaches, and the scientific impact. The evaluators thus recommended improving the integration of the topics within the programme and the research field, strategically refining the portfolio of selected research approaches, and tapping into new conceptual and methodological fields in modelling analysis.

Participating Helmholtz centres: DLR, FZJ, KIT, UFZ

Contact: Programme spokesperson: Prof. Armin Grunwald, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; Press office: Monica Landgraf, +49 (0)721 608 47414, monika.landgraf(at)kit.edu


Nuclear Waste Management, Safety and Radiation Research

Lead evaluator: Prof. Sue Clark, Washington State University, USA

This research programme focuses on safety issues linked to nuclear waste disposal, including the long-term security of final storage, and the safety of nuclear power plants. It pursues technically consistent and convincing research strategies that are spurring on Germany’s intention to phase out nuclear power. It addresses problems related to the final storage of radioactive waste, nuclear reactor safety, and stopping nuclear power production entirely.

The evaluators strongly support the planned activities and rated the research findings and the proposed research strategy as outstanding. They were convinced that the research proposal gives the scientists a roadmap that continues to set the standards for international science and will have a considerable impact on the safe operation and decommissioning of nuclear facilities in Germany and abroad. Within this context, the evaluators recommended developing a research strategy for the period in the future when use of nuclear power has been discontinued that allows Germany to retain its expertise in nuclear technology.

Participating Helmholtz centres: FZJ, HZDR, KIT

Contact: Programme spokesperson: Prof. Dirk Bosbach, Forschungszentrum Jülich; Press office: Anne Rother, +49 (0)2461 61 4661, a.rother(at)fz-juelich.de


Nuclear Fusion

Lead evaluator: Prof. Albrecht Wagner, Savièse, Switzerland

This programme involving European and international partners is working on making a fusion power plant a reality. A second, complementary activity involves shedding light on elements that are key to using nuclear fusion as source of energy. In addition to investigating plasma wall interaction and working on materials and fusion technologies, the scientists are also advancing research into stellarator and tokamak reactors. The evaluators commended the facts that the participating scientists were global leaders in their field of research, that they had set up unique infrastructures, and that they were addressing questions of extraordinary importance for the use of nuclear fusion as source of energy. Furthermore, the evaluators praised the depth and multifaceted nature of the analyses, the outstanding level of productivity, and the comprehensive portfolio. The scientific quality and originality of the activities in the field of stellarator research in particular were described as outstanding. The successful commissioning and upgrade of the Wendelstein 7-X facility means that unique solutions to major scientific challenges are now on offer. The research in this field is undeniably leading the world within this crucial area of energy research.

Participating Helmholtz centres: IPP, FZJ, KIT

Contact: Programme spokesperson: Prof. Robert Wolf, Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics; Press office: Isabella Milch, +49 (0)89 3299 1317, milch(at)ipp.mpg.de

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  • Photo of Tobias Sontheimer
    • Dr. Tobias Sontheimer
    • Chief Research Manager Energy
      Helmholtz Association