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Posted: December 7, 2007
DFG research team nominated for the German Future Prize
(Nanowerk News) When this year’s German Future Prize is awarded on 6 December, researchers funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and their work will also take the limelight. Andreas Gutsch, Gerhard Hörpel and Paul Roth are one of the four research teams who are hopefuls for winning the 250,000 euros in prize money that accompanies the Federal President's Award for Technology and Innovation. The three researchers were nominated for their work on a novel technique for making high performance, long-lasting and safe lithium-ion batteries – a promising development for the future that is the result of a unique cooperation between the DFG, a number of universities and industrial partners.
Enabling large-scale applications for traditionally small-scale uses– this could be the motto for the work done by the three researchers who have been nominated for the Future Prize. Small lithium-ion batteries are in widespread use in laptop computers and mobile phones as well as in camcorders and rechargeable screwdrivers. For larger stationary applications, in cars, or wherever high capacity energy storage is needed, it has been impossible to use lithium-ion batteries due to safety issues. Large lithium-ion batteries contain so much energy that until now existing designs were prone to explode easily if damaged.
Andreas Gutsch, Gerhard Hörpel and Paul Roth have managed to overcome this hurdle in lithium-ion technology, which led to their nomination. They have developed a “separator” that separates the anode and cathode inside the battery, thus preventing it from short-circuiting. Small lithium-ion batteries also have a separator, but it is made of a polymer membrane that is too unstable for large-scale applications. The newly developed separator, on the other hand, is made of a porous ceramic about 20 microns thick that is made of nanoparticles, which has exceptionally high thermal stability and is very robust.
It is hard to overestimate the significance of this development. It will enable very high performance lithium-ion batteries to be used in environmentally friendly hybrid vehicles for the first time, helping cut fuel consumption, with the potential of halving emissions. It will also be possible to use wind and solar energy much more efficiently with large lithium-ion batteries. These and other applications are also intended to capture a slice of a billion-euro market, with sales of lithium-ion batteries predicted to almost triple from the current figure of 1.4 billion euros per year by 2015.
This innovation, which is not only future-oriented but which also promises to be worth billions, was also achieved due to the financial and practical support provided by the DFG. Andreas Gutsch and Gerhard Hörpel, who at the time were employed in R&D at what was then Degussa AG (now part of Evonik Industries AG) started working on the development of novel nanoparticles in the mid-1990s. It was not long before they sought, and found, opportunities to cooperate with universities doing basic research in the field and receiving DFG funding in various forms. One of the most successful institutions working in the field was Collaborative Research Centre 445 “Nanoparticles from the Gas Phase: Formation, Structure, Properties” that was established at the University of Duisburg in 1999 (now part of the University of Essen-Duisburg), which was led by Paul Roth.
In the year 2000 this collaboration led to a joint project involving industry and academia that remains unique to the present day, the “ Projekthaus Nanomaterialien” or “Nanomaterials Project House”. This involved researchers from Degussa, the University of Duisburg and six other universities working together on the research and development of nanoparticles at the Degussa plant in Hanau, funded jointly by Degussa and the DFG.
For the researchers from industrial R&D, this cooperation with the DFG and the universities was a “key step”, as Andreas Gutsch emphasised after being nominated for the Future Prize. For the DFG, which provided more that seven million euros in funding to the Nanomaterials Project House as part of its Priority Programme “Handling of Highly Dispersed Powders”, the cooperation represented new territory in terms of research and funding policy. “For the first time, researchers from industry and universities are working in partnership with jointly defined goals on a large scale,” emphasised the President of the DFG at the time, Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker. The lithium-ion battery separators are one of the fruits of this unique project partnership.
In addition to this cooperation and funding, there are also other close ties between the researchers who have been nominated and the DFG. Andreas Gutsch and Paul Roth both provide their expertise to the DFG, and the researchers and scientists who submit funding proposals to the DFG, as reviewers and peer reviewers for Collaborative Research Centres as well as in other funding programmes. Gutsch, who did his very first work as a research assistant in a project funded by the DFG, was also a member of the Joint Commission of the German Science Council and the DFG for the Excellence Initiative over the past two years and was thus involved in selecting the most promising graduate schools, clusters of excellence and institutional strategies to promote top-level research at German universities. Paul Roth was the coordinator of SFB 445, located in Duisburg-Essen, until 2002, funding for which was extended for another three years by the DFG just at the end of November.
This promising lithium-ion technology is also the subject of a new research initiative recently launched by the DFG, which is also supported by Evonik Industries. Seven universities and several non-university research institutes are involved in this undertaking, which was initiated by the Energy Conversion Project Group at the DFG’s Head Office in Bonn. They hope to lay the foundations for the development of even more powerful high-capacity energy storage solutions –thus boosting Germany’s position in this globally competitive field. The DFG is providing 3.8 million euros in funding for this project over an initial three-year period.