"We want to help shape the energy transition."
Interview with Prof. Kai-Uwe Sattler and Prof. Dirk Westermann at the start of the theme year | October 2020
Good afternoon Professor Sattler, good afternoon Professor Westermann. The TU Ilmenau has declared the Year of Energy. Why do you want to draw attention to this topic and what activities will take place in the future as part of this theme year?
Sattler: At our university, we teach and research in the field of energy technology, among other things, and would like to make a contribution to society against the backdrop of climate change. We think it makes sense to communicate research topics that will determine our future in the longer term. In the course of the theme year, we would like to offer a series of activities such as workshops to better highlight the importance of energy technology. To this end, we are opening up our university to all interested parties who can attend these events.
In order to bundle expertise at TU Ilmenau, the Thuringian Energy Research Institute (ThEFI) was recently founded, which brings together twelve specialist areas and research groups in the field of electrical energy, drive and environmental systems engineering. Why was this institute founded?
Westermann: Just under a quarter of the professors at TU Ilmenau work on energy topics in a wide variety of dimensions. Compared to large universities, we have great strength in this area. With the ThEFI, we want to formulate the claim that energy research takes place here in Ilmenau and in the Free State of Thuringia. We also want to bundle our activities and become visible not only in the Free State, but also beyond these borders.
What goal are the scientists at ThEFI pursuing?
Westermann: We want to help shape the energy transition. The great challenge of the 21st century is the defossilization of society in industrialized nations worldwide. This is where we want to make our contributions, and in this institute we have the expertise to do so across the entire process chain - from materials to data processing to information transmission.
What challenges does research face in order to drive forward the energy transition?
Westermann: The big challenge is that no one yet knows what the end state will be. There are various options for what the energy supply could look like in 30 years. The one thing that can be said today is: with today's technologies, we won't manage to guarantee the energy supply of our society without CO2 emissions. We want to achieve the defossilization of our society, that is, a climate-neutral supply of energy without compromising our standard of living. This is what is meant by the so-called major energy transition, which is certainly still a utopia. The small energy turnaround, on the other hand, means generating electricity only from renewable energy sources.
How are the scientists at ThEFI proceeding?
Westermann: We are developing a target scenario for how such a climate-neutral energy supply could be made possible and are considering which technologies are needed to achieve this. How can I generate hydrogen? How can I manage a supply infrastructure so efficiently that I no longer need people to do it? How can I guarantee a secure uninterrupted supply? We are trying to answer these questions. Our main areas of work are energy system transformation, cognitive energy systems and power mechatronics.
Which energy sources does your research focus on?
Westermann: We are concentrating on electricity-driven energy, i.e. electrical energy. But we have already come to the realization: We will not be able to shape the energy turnaround with electrical energy alone; we have to take all energy sources into account. This also includes gaseous energy sources. We are not only concerned with the production of hydrogen, but also with energy transport and, above all, with the linking of energy infrastructure systems up to mobility, where there are points of contact with electromobility or mobility with alternative drives, which ultimately also have to be supplied with energy. In our laboratories, we study energy carriers in all forms. The things we can't look at there, we represent with the help of powerful computer simulations, for example with the help of the dynamic grid control room.
The TU Ilmenau is a comparatively small university. How do you manage to research the energy supply holistically?
Westermann: Major topics are usually solved by a small number of experts working together on an interdisciplinary basis. That is one of the strengths of our location and of ThEFI in particular. The disciplines are interlinked because we are a small university. The scientists here can work together optimally in interdisciplinary teams. This allows us to take a holistic perspective.
Downstream from the ThEFI is the Center for Energy Technology, which functions as the laboratory of this institute. We are thus pursuing an innovative approach to laboratory use. We no longer have a lab assigned to one person, but offer a lab pool that can be used by different scientists. In this way, we promote synergies in order to maintain a cost-effective laboratory infrastructure.
Professor Sattler, you want to promote interdisciplinary cooperation at TU Ilmenau and transfer to industry. How can these goals be achieved with the ThEFI?
Sattler: Many disciplines can contribute to the topic of the energy transition. This includes the topic of mobility, for example with the Thuringian Mobility Innovation Center, but also energy-saving electronics or artificial intelligence, which can support energy management. Physics, materials science, computer science, information technology, mechanical engineering and even economics are also applied here.
At our location, we work with regional partners such as the Fraunhofer Institute IOSB-AST, but of course also with business partners.
Westermann: These include small and medium-sized enterprises that benefit directly from our research and with whom we jointly implement projects. However, we would like to have more partners from industry to initiate further innovations. We have now created the structural conditions so that, in addition to basic longitudinal research, we have the perspective of promoting spin-offs from ThEFI. We would like to be more active in this area in the future - also through the new Ilmkubator project. The insights we gain from research projects could thus lead to spin-offs.
Sattler: In addition to our expertise, we also offer the infrastructure, i.e. the appropriate research equipment, to be able to work on these projects.
What are the main areas of research you are working on at ThEFI?
Westermann: The range of projects is very broad: How do you control a decarbonised energy system? How can I use artificial intelligence methods to make grid operation more secure? What do new material-saving components look like that will be installed in the energy grid in five years' time? How can I generate CO2-free electrical energy? What materials can I use to produce hydrogen? And how do you communicate new energy technologies so that they are accepted by the population?
Could Thuringia take on a pioneering role in energy supply in Germany with the help of research at the TU Ilmenau?
Westermann: Of course we are interested in applying our results directly. We also have some activities in this area, and it would be nice if we could expand them. We could also imagine a kind of Living Lab on campus and are currently working on a concept for financing it.
The Year of Energy Technology is the first in a series of themed years to follow at TU Ilmenau. Which topics are still being considered for this and what requirements do they have to meet?
Sattler: The topics reflect the focal points of our university. I could imagine that in subsequent theme years we will deal with novel materials or intelligent sensor technology, for example. However, they should always be topics that address a social problem and affect a large part of TU Ilmenau.
The interview was conducted by Eleonora Hamburg.