Who if not us?
How industry and research in Adlershof are tackling global challenges
Climate change, plastic pollution of the environment, water scarcity – the world will get stuck in man-made mess if nothing is done against it. Industry and research in Adlershof are doing something against it and are reacting to these global challenges. Some examples from the materials and circular economy.
A blue planet? Indeed, it is. The problem is that, in the end, only three percent of the earth’s entire water supply is fresh water. And humankind is putting considerable pressure on it with pollution and climate change. Water scarcity will become one of the great challenges of our age. Nine Heine and Fabian Habicht are facing it head-on. The two founders of Shit2Power, a start-up, perceive of wastewater as a resource, capable of reducing the lack of fresh water and producing renewable energy from sewage sludge. Hence, the attention-grabbing firm name.
What’s their mission? “We generate climate-neutral energy from sludge. This will turn wastewater treatment plants into power plants and keep fresh water in the cycle,” explain Heine and Habicht. “Sewage sludge contains up to three times the amount of energy that is needed for treating the wastewater,” says Heine. Habicht adds: “However, we don’t yet have a mature technology to utilise this potential in smaller wastewater treatment plants.” This applies to about a quarter of all facilities in Germany, which amounts to 2,400 wastewater treatment plants. They could soon be equipped with the plug-and-play container system of the Adlershof-based company.
The key feature of the horse trailer-sized container is a procedure for drying sewage sludge that does not require an external energy supply. The ‘civilisation waste’ is gasified, creating a synthesis gas containing hydrogen when oxygen is added, which can either be used for electricity generation or for producing green hydrogen. What remains is ash that could be used for recovering phosphorus, which sewage sludge contains. The entire process is carbon neutral. However, that isn’t the decisive factor for the founding team: “Debates around climate change often home in on the carbon footprint. It’s important, but it’s not everything when tackling the Grand Challenges. We have to think and act more broadly than that.”
Nonetheless: Facing the great challenges of our age on a small scale can lead to huge progress. This is also shown by the quantitative measurements done at Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), Germany’s national metrology institute, which are highly precise and reliable down to the nanoscale. Frank Scholze, a researcher at PTB, puts it in a nutshell: “We have the measurement technology for the materials of tomorrow.” His colleague, Michael Krumrey adds some more detail: “PTB conducts research in the field of energy materials, both in solar cells and batteries.” In essence, the mission is to achieve the highest possible efficiency in solar panels and rechargeable batteries and, specifically in batteries, the lowest possible ageing. The essential tool here is measurements done “in operando”, i.e., operation under real-life conditions. “We analyse cells that are very much alive, so to speak,” says Krumrey.
By doing so, it is possible to analyse what happens chemically during the charging and discharging processes of batteries at an atomic level without destroying them. Researchers use the synchrotron light source BESSY II to do so. “With these soft X-rays, we have developed singular measurement methods. This is our core competence,” explains Krumrey.
Whenever solar cell efficiency increased or the range and lifespan of car batteries, PTB most often had something to do with it. “Optimising batteries or developing new types will only be possible if one understands the complex system,” says Krumrey, with emphasis. “But the measurement technology we provide for optical systems in high-end semiconductor manufacturing is also a building block for enabling energy-saving high-performance processors in smartphones and computers, for example,” adds Scholze.
Against the backdrop of climate change, this energy issue is the ultimate grand challenge for both of them. The two researchers have a modest view of their part in overcoming it: “Researchers are not the main drivers behind tackling these challenges. They provide ideas and realise them,” they say. In their mind, the key is to be found in the political and societal determination to tackle major challenges – even if it hurts. Scholze: “Climate change is man-made and so humans can and must be the ones to take action.”
Siegmund Greulich-Weber holds a similar view: “There are already many scientific solutions to partial aspects of many global challenges,” he says. “Even if the political will for change and insight of many people is there, however, action must be global.” The managing director of The Yellow SiC Development GmbH highlights another issue: “The solutions must also be persuasive in an economic sense.” His young company might well be successful in doing this. Yellow SiC has developed a novel manufacturing procedure for 3C-SiC, cubic silicon carbide. Greulich-Weber: “Until now, this material could not be produced in large quantities. It enables various new applications.”
Above all, it allows to produce hydrogen in an affordable, one-step process – using only sunlight and water. By doing this, solar cells mounted on a roof can be turned into factories producing green hydrogen.
“Hydrogen is a key resource for a successful energy transition,” says the founder, emphatically. His Adlershof-based business now wants to make the resource available in a way that is both economically and environmentally friendly.
Silicon carbide is an extremely hard semiconductor material, which is ideal for splitting water, particularly in its 3C-SiC form. “We have already provided proof that hydrogen can be produced in this way without further aids such as an additional electrical voltage,” reports Greulich-Weber. Next, the start-up will optimise the performance and design of photoelectrocatalytic electrodes and test a cell that can be manufactured on an industrial scale. The trick: “The hydrogen-producing cell contains no electrical cables and consists only of a 3C-SiC plate, which is illuminated from one side with sunlight,” explains the YellowSiC CEO.
Recent experiments at the Helmholtz Centre Berlin for Materials and Energy have also shown that the material can be very efficiently used to split CO2. In this way, it might be possible to kill two birds with one stone, saving fossil energy carriers as well as greenhouse gases.
For Greulich-Weber, this means addressing two Grand Challenges at the same time. “However, I consider the global supply of clean water as an equally serious task and one that has been completely neglected so far.” His vision is to produce facilities with his company that can purify and desalinate water directly.
Chris Löwer for Adlershof Journal