The DECHEMA Research Institute has reorganised itself as of 1 June 2021 and is also focusing more strongly on sustainability in terms of content. What is the driver for this realignment?
PD Dr. Jonathan Bloh: The focus on sustainability is nothing new for the DFI - it was already a strong focus before. In future, however, we will be directing an even greater share of our activities towards the energy and raw materials transition as the two major social and economic challenges in the coming decades.
PD Dr.-Ing. Mathias Galetz: With the expertise we have built up over decades, we can contribute a great deal. We work closely on an interdisciplinary basis at the interfaces of chemical technology and materials, which plays a major role in the energy and raw materials transition. Our know-how can be put to extremely good use here. In this respect, we would probably also have worked on these topics if they had not become a megatrend.
In the past, DECHEMA's research institute stood primarily for high-temperature materials and corrosion research. But electrochemistry has also always been cultivated, even in times when it had fallen behind at other research institutes and universities. What role do these topics play for the energy and raw material turnaround?
Galetz: Many plants that have been operated for years and are still being operated are oriented towards fossil energy sources. The question here is to what extent methane, for example, can be replaced by hydrogen. That has far-reaching consequences: If water is produced instead of CO2, one has to deal with these water loads, and the materials must also be designed for this. This can be achieved by coatings, by replacing components or by new manufacturing processes such as additive manufacturing.
Bloh: In addition to retrofitting the existing plants, however, completely new plants must also be built. For this, old processes have to be rethought or completely new processes have to be developed. This goes hand in hand with the use of new reagents, but also with different process conditions, e.g. with regard to the composition of the atmosphere. This gives rise to completely new material questions.
From this brief overview you can already see how important interdisciplinary cooperation is, because chemistry, process and material issues must be considered together.
Do you have to develop completely new fields of research for this, or can the findings from other areas be transferred 1:1 to the new applications?
Galetz: Both. Research is constantly evolving anyway - standing still would be fatal. Often you don't even notice the transition because it is fluid; from project to project, new questions arise that are taken up.
Hydrogen research has been added as a large new block. We have already worked in this area selectively, but on a smaller scale. Currently, for example, the field of electrolysers is growing very strongly, from the examination of individual materials to the development of entire components.
Bloh: Our decades of know-how in electrochemistry is now also gaining new importance. We are not newcomers, but have always been involved in it. This is now to our advantage, because we can build on this well-founded knowledge and use it in the context of the energy transition. We are now systematically adding to these existing competences so that we can offer a comprehensive range in the field of hydrogen.
There are particularly many changes in the area of chemical technology. What role will topics like water treatment play in the future, which has also been very important up to now?
Bloh: Water treatment will also play a major role in the future in the context of the raw material turnaround. The goal of the raw material turnaround is a circular economy in which we no longer need any new raw materials, but instead reuse what we have. This also applies to water. Industry is working intensively on minimising wastewater or converting it back into usable water resources. In addition, we also need water for the hydrogen economy - that is often forgotten. You need water of sufficient quality at all times to produce hydrogen. This is not the case for applications on the high seas or in the desert, for example.
Even in Germany, an industrialised country, it is not possible to provide large quantities of clean water at every location. This means that an electrolyser on a gigawatt scale must also take into account appropriate water treatment. Here, electrochemically driven wastewater treatment, which we are working on, will also be very important in the future.
Where do your focal points lie in the area of the raw material turnaround?
Bloh: At the moment, there are many parallels between the raw materials and energy transition, especially in the area of hydrogen, which plays a prominent role in both concepts - on the one hand as an energy carrier, but also to replace fossil carbon carriers in chemical processes by converting hydrogen and CO2.
In addition to hydrogen, the recovery of precious metals, for example, is also an important component of the raw material turnaround. This includes the processing of fuel cells or photovoltaic systems. Although this will only play a significant role in the next few decades, the "end of life" should be taken into account as early as possible in the development of the plants. The technologies must be available when this issue becomes acute.
Is there also a risk in the strong focus? What will you be researching when the energy transition is solved?
Bloh: Despite all the optimism, I don't think the energy transition will be completed in the next five years - that will keep us busy until the 2040s.
Galetz: We are also broadly positioned; although this is always a challenge for a research institute of our size, on the other hand it offers the security that we are not only dependent on one trend. We can react flexibly to requirements from research funding or industry.
In the new structure, bioprocess engineering is assigned to the Chemical Engineering Division. What role will biotechnology and bioprocess engineering play at the DECHEMA Research Institute in the future?
Bloh: We see the great advantage of biotechnology in the fact that more complex chemical products can be produced, which often require several process steps with chemical or electrochemical methods. It can also be combined very well with electrochemical and perhaps also photocatalytic processes. Thus, in the first step, you can produce a simple building block from solar energy or electricity and CO2, which you can then biotechnologically process into more complex molecules.
We want to further utilise and expand this integration - again true to the motto: interdisciplinary cooperation is the trump card. As a relatively small institute, we cannot cover all aspects of biotechnology, but we still see great potential especially in the area of biologisation of chemical processes and the combination of technologies.
What role do cooperations play for the DECHEMA Research Institute?
Galetz: That is a very broad spectrum. We work with SMEs here in Hesse quasi "around the corner", for whom we work on very specific questions and who do not have research or specialist departments themselves. But we also do contract research for the "big players" who appreciate our expertise.
In projects and EU alliances, we cooperate with national and international companies, but of course also with other research institutions. We contribute our expertise here because we have know-how in the field of materials that is practically not available anywhere else in Europe. And of course there are also cooperations beyond Europe.
Are you looking for further cooperation partners beyond the existing networks?
Bloh: We are constantly looking for new partners, both for public research projects and for scientific exchange with other research institutions and universities. But we are also available at any time as a service provider for industry to work together on the challenges of the future. In recent years, more and more enquiries have come from other European countries - you can also tell that Europe is growing together and companies are increasingly thinking internationally.
What do you offer your partners and customers?
Galetz: We may be small, but we have expertise in the field of high-temperature corrosion, for example, which is outstanding worldwide. This group of 20 people brings a special knowledge that cannot be found anywhere else. We work less on systemic issues, but especially in research networks or as project partners for large companies, we are welcome partners for specific detailed questions. We can provide the assistance that decides whether the plant will last 5 or 20 years - and thus whether the investment is worthwhile.
Bloh: We can't do everything, but what we can do, we can do very well. Our particular strengths are the close cooperation of a wide range of disciplines and great flexibility - we can act quickly and very individually.
How can DECHEMA, DECHEMA Ausstellungs-GmbH and DECHEMA Research Institute benefit from each other in the future?
Galetz: Let's take the example of hydrogen again: we have a range of services at DECHEMA across the three units that is so unique in Germany. We at the DECHEMA Research Institute can advise on materials issues, we can support in the selection of electrolyser technology and components. DECHEMA e.V. contributes its expertise in technology assessment, life cycle analyses and the preparation of roadmaps. And at ACHEMA, the hydrogen economy will play an essential role. And through our different perspectives, we bring in all the contacts that ultimately form a very large and diverse network - that also doesn't exist in this form anywhere else.
An abridged version of the interview appeared in the current issue of "DECHEMA aktuell" (08/2021).
Picture (from left): PD Dr.-Ing Mathias Galetz, Chairman of the Board DECHEMA Research Institute and PD Dr. Jonathan Bloh, Executive Board DECHEMA Research Institute © DECHEMA-Forschungsinstitut (DFI)