Electrochemistry with tradition and a future – Ulm's contribution to the energy revolution and electric mobility

 

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 revolution and to establishing electric mobility.  To achieve this, Ulm University, which is renowned worldwide for its long-established electrochemistry, collaborates with strong partners from the industry.

Lithium-ion pouch cells
Lithium-ion pouch cells

Searching for tomorrows batteries

The goals are truly ambitious: Over the next years, the energy revolution is to become reality and electric vehicles are expected to dominate our roads. This calls for powerful, reliable and environmentally friendly storage devices. After all, energy from renewable sources, such as the sun and water, is not available 24/7 and therefore needs to be stored in the interim. Storage devices are also necessary to avoid power grid overload during production peaks. What’s more, electric cars need a reliable reserve to make sure that sufficient electricity is available for the journey.

Conventional lithium-ion batteries, used in smartphones and notebooks for instance, have more or less reached their maximum storage capacity. For this reason, fundamental researchers and practitioners in the Science City of Ulm are searching for the batteries of the future. Fuel cells, converting hydrogen and oxygen into energy, are also a strong research focus. Their zero-emission energy supply makes them a great alternative to combustion engines.

Electrochemistry has a long tradition at Ulm University: Although this field of research was long considered to be 'out-of-date', Ulm stuck by its electrochemistry institute – which is now paying off.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 are still not fully understood.

 

 

Swagelok-Zellen werden in einem Batteriezyklierer eingesetz, um Leistungs-, Zyklen- und Alterungstests unter definierten thermischen Bedingungen durchzuführen (Foto: HIU)

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 in theory and experiment by the German Research Foundation (DFG) research team 'Elementary Reaction Steps in Electrocatalysis: Theory Meets Experiment'. In 2010, scientists mainly explored the elementary steps involved in important electrocatalytical processes, such as hydrogen formation and oxygen reduction. One of the aspects to be investigated by the DFG research team during the second funding period is how nanostructured electrodes function. Electrochemical research at Ulm University also looks at energy-related materials, molecular photoelectrocatalysis and 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, Director of the Institute of Electrochemistry.

The high-performance computer JUSTUS, established at the end of 2014, makes large the arithmetic operations required for this research much easier. Ulm's supercomputer is the centrepiece of the bwForCluster for theoretical chemistry and was also devised for the exploration of chemical energy storage and conversion. The computer is available to scientists across all of Baden-Württemberg.

Photovoltaic, where sunlight is converted into electrical energy via solar cells, is another area where Ulm University is at the forefront of scientific research. Researchers at the Institute of Organic Chemistry II and Advanced Materials in cooperation with Dresden University are putting their focus on organic solar cells rather than standard silicium technology. With the spin-off Heliatek, the researchers around Prof. Peter Bäuerle have set several world records regarding efficiency.

At the end of 2016, the perfect advertising vehicle for alternative propulsion systems took off at Stuttgart airport: The environmentally friendly fuel cell-powered aircraft HY4 went on its maiden flight, equipped with technology made in Ulm. The intellectual father of the innovative plane, Prof. Josef Kallo, leads the University's Institute of Energy Conversion and Storage while also managing the project at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).

The passenger plane HY4 during its maiden flight
The passenger plane HY4 during its maiden flight
A scientist conducts a structure determination on an x-ray diffractometer
A scientist conducts a structure determination on an x-ray diffractometer

Strong partners in the Science City – HIU and ZSW

The Helmholtz Institute Ulm for Electrochemical Energy Storage (HIU) and the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (ZSW) Baden-Württemberg are central links between fundamental research and praxis in the Science City. The Director of the ZSW also holds a professorship at the University's Faculty of Natural Sciences. The University furthermore collaborates with the Daimler Research Centre.

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 Centre (DLR). In the new building featuring high-tech laboratories - aptly located on Helmholtzstraße - international groups of researchers are developing and testing new storage materials and entire new systems.

Research activities in the adjacent ZSW building range 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. The 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. With the help of the new ZSW research platform, inaugurated in autumn 2014, leading German industrial enterprises are developing methods for the production of large lithium-ion batteries suitable for use in passenger cars. The goal: to ensure that batteries for electric mobility are manufactured locally to meet the needs of the German market.

Measures are in place to attract young qualified scholars to the Science City: 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, info sessions, model trials and exhibits are ideal for getting school students and professionals from the realms of industry, crafts and science interested in battery research.

eLaB
The Laboratory for Battery Technology (eLaB) at the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (photo: ZSW)
Füllstutzen E-Tankstelle
Numerous charging stations for electric cars can be found in the Science City of Ulm already (photo: ZSW/H. Grandel)
Research at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (photo: HIU)
Research at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (photo: HIU)