Sustainability and energy transition: The role of the surface

Torrential flooding in Germany, ongoing forest fires in Australia and the USA, and a global pandemic on top of that: since 2021 at the latest, it has been clear that we are moving increasingly faster toward the Earth's ecological stress limits. The only solution that does not involve a return to pre-industrial times is to develop efficient methods for using renewable energy sources and sustainable, industrial processes. We need: Innovation.

The surface properties of materials are often the key to the efficiency of a particular process. How fast does a reaction proceed? How selective is my process? How corrosion-resistant is the new system? Surface technology takes on an extremely important role as an absolute cross-sectional technology that will help determine the success of renewable technologies, such as fuel cell cars, batteries and corrosion protection for wind turbines.

Hydrogen: Graphite instead of gold promises breakthrough in bipolar plates

The topics of fuel cells, hydrogen diffusion and hydrogen embrittlement are highly relevant with regard to the central role of hydrogen as a future energy carrier. However, the triumphant advance of the fuel cell car is currently still stumbling due to the high manufacturing and therefore acquisition costs. In addition to efficiency problems, this is mainly due to the required gold-coated bipolar plates. These are core components of the fuel cells and provide, for example, the electrical connection, gas distribution and sealing of the cells. But gold is expensive and the production is complex.

Last summer, a breakthrough in surface technology at the Fraunhofer IWS in collaboration with Daimler and the Finnish steel company Outokumpu Nirosta caused a stir. A low-cost alternative was promised: thin carbon films suitable for mass production are significantly less expensive to manufacture while providing similar or better bipolar plate performance. [1]

Despite this positive news, there is still plenty of room to tackle, for example, the development of low-cost coatings to protect against hydrogen embrittlement and to seal against hydrogen diffusion in the transportation sector. Here, too, surface technology can be the tongues on the scales.

The light at the end of the tunnel - Coatings and surfaces that can be activated by sunlight

In addition to hydrogen, solar energy is also being hotly traded as a future energy carrier and primary pillar of the energy transition. The particularly attractive aspect is that sunlight is accessible everywhere, and the energy that hits the earth in one hour of sunlight could theoretically supply the global economy for an entire year.

Accordingly, solar cells are already part of everyday life. In Germany, the initial exemplary development was slowed down, but especially over the last few years we are experiencing a boom again in this country with innovative concepts for solar power generation.

Less common is the term photocatalysis. This form of catalysis draws its energy from photons, i.e. light. Semiconductor materials can be excited by light to such an extent that they can supply energy for the splitting of actually unreactive water into hydrogen and oxygen. In the large joint project H2Demo, demonstrators with an area of 1300 cm2 for direct solar hydrogen production with an efficiency > 15 % are now to be built for the first time by 2026.[2] In addition, photocatalysts can convert organic matter and theoretically also CO2 into other platform molecules such as methanol. Photocatalytically active coatings and materials can also be used for self-cleaning and antimicrobial surfaces (this is already commercially widespread in Asia), or in air filters for virus/pollutant control, and in wastewater treatment.

Batteries, in-line sensor technology and high-end corrosion protection

Coating processes are also indispensable in the field of batteries and all related applications. Topics in which surface technology plays a role include, for example, novel, solvent-free coating processes for energy storage electrodes as an ecologically friendly alternative; the establishment of inline sensor technology to reduce electrode scrap; and optimized surface structuring of electrodes to increase the performance of batteries.

Good wear/corrosion protection increases the longevity of products, and thus their resource efficiency and lifetime sustainability. In everyday life, products such as zinc flake coatings have already established themselves as standard on the market in this regard. Challenges arise, however, in particularly aggressive environments, such as marine environments, where salt water particularly affects materials. This is of interest in the area of off-shore wind turbines or also in shipping. Intelligent solutions in surface technology are required here.

New technology network is formed

So there is a lot to do: Therefore, EurA AG is planning a new ZIM cooperation network "FONIE - Functional Surfaces for Sustainable Industry and Energy Applications". The development of new end products and processes as well as the further development of existing technologies are an essential part of the network as well as the future, economic development.

The aim of the cooperation network, which is funded by the BMWK, is the generation, cooperation, application and support of funded R&D projects. In concrete terms, your needs and problems form the basis for this. The network management of EurA AG supports you during the entire innovation and funding process. Along the presented topics, synergies between the sub-areas should be generated as far as possible in order to accelerate technological progress. In doing so, representatives of the entire value chain are taken into account. The results of the projects serve as a technological basis for a future market launch of innovative surface technologies. Successful funding and networking projects strengthen surface technology on a national and international level. The initiation and implementation of technological innovations enables the development of new fields of application and thus an increase in sales for your company. Competitive advantages are secured through membership in the network and expanded through new cooperation opportunities. In addition, resource-oriented development leads to sustainable and economical products.

Does that sound interesting? Then just pick up the phone or send an e-mail!

 

Author: Dr. Greta Haselmann


[1] „Graphit statt Gold: Dünne Schichten für bessere Wasserstoff-Autos - Fraunhofer IWS“. https://www.iws.fraunhofer.de/de/newsundmedien/presseinformationen/2020/presseinformation_2020-09.html

[2]  H2Demo https://h2demo.de/

Greta Haselmann

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Greta Haselmann

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