Electrochemistry with tradition and a future
Ulm’s contribution to the energy turnaround and electromobility

The Science City of Ulm is a hotbed of future technology for powerful, reliable batteries and fuel cells. Such novel and environmentally friendly storage and conversion devices could make a substantial contribution to the success of the energy turnaround and to establishing electromobility. In this connection, Ulm University, which has a long tradition in electrochemistry, collaborates with strong partners.

A scanning electron microscope image of materials used in battery research.
A scanning electron microscope image of materials used in battery research.

Searching for tomorrow’s batteries

The objectives are truly ambitious: one million electrical vehicles are to conquer Germany’s roads by 2020, and the energy turnaround is to be successful. The prerequisite for achieving these objectives is the existence of powerful, reliable and environmentally friendly storage devices. After all, energy from renewable sources such as the sun and water is not always available, and therefore has to be stored temporarily. Storage devices are also required to ensure that the grid does not become overloaded during production peaks. In addition, electric cars need a reliable reserve to make sure that sufficient electricity is available for the journey.

And yet conventional lithium-ion batteries, used in smartphones and notebooks for instance, have more or less reached their maximum storage capacity. For this reason, basic researchers and practitioners in the Science City of Ulm are searching for tomorrow’s batteries.  Fuel cells, converting hydrogen and oxygen in energy, are also a strong research focus as they are of crucial interest for zero emission driving.

Electrochemistry enjoys a long tradition at Ulm University: although this area of research was long considered to be "out-of-date ", Ulm stuck by its electrochemistry institute - which is now paying off. After all, the processes that occur at the molecular and atomic level in batteries and fuel cells have still not been fully clarified.

Theory and experiment go hand in hand

Currently researchers at Ulm University not only further improve commercially available Lithium-Ion-Batteries, they are also developing innovative battery concepts based on new materials. They are supported by the research team "Elementary Reaction Steps in Electrocatalysis: Theory Meets Experiment", funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). In 2010 scientists started exploring the elementary processes involved in electrocatalytical reactions such as hydrogen formation and oxygen reduction. After all, it will only be possible to specifically optimise energy storage devices once all of the details involved have been clarified. One of the aspects to be investigated by the DFG research team in the second funding period is how nanostructured electrodes function. Besides this, electrochemical research at Ulm University also comprises energy related materials, molecular photoelectrocatalysis and novel porous materials to be used in electrodes. The outstanding quality of this fundamental work was honoured with an ERC Starting Grant awarded to Professor Timo Jacob, head of the Institute of Electrochemistry.

The high-performance computer JUSTUS was established at the end of 2014. This system makes it easier for large arithmetic operations to be run and supports the theoretical work of the electrochemical research groups. Ulm's supercomputer is the centrepiece of the bwForCluster for theoretical chemistry. The computer, which was also devised for the exploration of chemical energy storage and conversion, is available to all scientists across Baden-Württemberg.

Also in photovoltaic, where sunlight is converted into electrical energy via solar cells, Ulm University in cooperation with Dresden University is at the forefront of scientific research. Researchers at the Institute of Organic Chemistry II and New Materials are developing organic solar cells that are promising in comparison to established solar cells technology based on inorganic materials such as silicon. Flexible and large organic solar films can be produced via continuous vapor deposition to be integrated in windows and facades. The efficiencies of these cost-efficient and environmentally friendly solar cells, which were achieved on lab scale, are high level and partly represent record values. In the summer of 2006 Heliatek was founded as a spin-off company as a result of the cooperation with Technical University Dresden. The aim is the mass production of large area organic solar films with printing techniques.

 

 

Modelling and visualising elementary structures and processes on electrode surfaces.
Modelling and visualising elementary structures and processes on electrode surfaces.

Strong partners in the Science City – HIU and ZSW

In the Science City of Ulm, the Helmholtz Institute Ulm Electrochemical Energy Storage (HIU) and the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (ZSW) Baden-Württemberg act as an important link between basic research and practice.

The non-university research institute HIU, founded in 2010, is supported by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) as a member of the Helmholtz Association and Ulm University, as well as by the associated partners ZSW and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). In the new building featuring high-tech laboratories – aptly located on Helmholtzstraße – international groups of researchers are optimising lithium-ion batteries (new storage materials, more complex design) and developing completely new systems, which are tested on-site.

ZSW, in the adjacent building, also covers the entire value chain of batteries and fuel cells – from modelling electrochemical processes to demonstrating whole systems. The industry-related centre was created as a spin-off from Ulm University more than 20 years ago. Scientists are exploring new materials for batteries; testing combinations; and investigating their ageing processes. They have at their disposal a pilot production plant for lithium-ion batteries. A new ZSW research platform was inaugurated in autumn 2014. Here, leading German industrial enterprises have the opportunity to develop methods for producing large lithium-ion batteries suitable for use in passenger cars. The objective is to ensure that batteries for electric mobility are manufactured locally to meet the needs of the German market.

Consequently, Ulm University and its partners are bound to play an important part in the energy turnaround. And measures are in place to attract young scholars: firstly, in the form of international Master’s programmes in Energy Science and Technology Advanced Materials and in Chemical Engineering and, secondly, in the form of the Education and Training Centre Ulm for Innovative Energy Technologies (WBZU): presentations, information events, model trials and exhibits are ideal for getting schoolchildren and professionals from the realms of industry, crafts and science interested in battery research.

 

 

Production of highly porous nanoparticle materials structured in the nanometer range based on metalloxides or carbon.
Production of highly porous nanoparticle materials structured in the nanometer range based on metalloxides or carbon.
Reactor for synthesising active materials used in battery materials.
Reactor for synthesising active materials used in battery materials.