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Research for sustainable development

'Non nobis solum nati sumus', a famous quote by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC), freely translates into 'Not for ourselves alone are we born' – even all those years ago, the writer got right to the heart of what is known today as ‘sustainability’. Current efforts for sustainable development are based on the insight that we need a 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs', in the words of the Our Common Future report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.

The objective of research is to offer society well-founded and sustainable solutions to existing problems, and to provide information on the consequences, which society must understand and accept.

In order to make this possible, scientists must anticipate the impact, opportunities and risks associated with their research and reflect on possible alternatives, and the results of these deliberations must be as transparent as the process itself.

A selection of Jülich’s contributions to research for sustainable development is presented below.

Green IT

Jülich’s research is sought after when it comes to exploiting energy savings potentials more effectively, for example in information technology. The solution to this could be novel approaches to information processing and storage. Pioneering steps are being taken towards new technologies that no longer depend on charge-based electronics. New electronic materials promise revolutionary progress for coming computer generations. These materials exhibit unusual effects such as multiferroicity, memristive behaviour, or spintronics, which were only discovered in the last few years and are currently being intensively investigated. Processors and storage elements based on these phenomena could be significantly faster and more energy-efficient than components currently employed. A great deal of energy could be saved, and not only at Jülich, if these turn out to be suitable for mass production.

In the area of supercomputing, Jülich experts and their partners from industry are working to develop supercomputers for research by 2020 that will reach processing capacities of more than one exaflop/s, i.e. one quintillion arithmetic operations per second: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. This requires energy efficiency to be improved by a factor of 1,000; otherwise, such a computer would need its own power plant. Central aspects of the development of a supercomputer that is compatible with environmental and economic requirements are new concepts for computer architecture, software, and cooling. Forschungszentrum Jülich cooperates with a number of partners in pursuing a variety of different alternative hardware and software concepts.

Power supply: transportation and networks

In the energy supply sector, conversion and storage systems will have to be expanded and improved further to make the widespread use of renewable energy sources feasible. Wind power and solar energy are subject to high and rapid fluctuations due to their location and the weather, which must be compensated for in order to guarantee a continuous supply of sufficient electricity. This must be taken into account during conversion, storage and transportation. The power transmission and distribution grids must be expanded and large amounts of energy must be stored. At the same time, to avoid shortages, consumers must consume energy in a more flexible manner, for example with the help of new power supply concepts or smart appliances that adapt their electricity consumption automatically according to grid load.

These new concepts can be tested and used directly on campus. For example, a fleet of electric cars at Forschungszentrum Jülich could serve as temporary storage devices during times when more energy is available than is required. Those cars that are currently not in use could be recharged with solar energy produced on the campus and pass it on when required.

Plant research: less energy, higher yields

More and more greenhouses are being built throughout the world – and the associated energy consumption for this purpose is also on the rise. Forschungszentrum Jülich has optimized its own greenhouses by using special materials and a cooling system that is based exclusively on thermal effects and does not require any electricity.

In order to optimize the use of sunlight, which is necessary for plant growth, Jülich scientists have developed a glass that is based on diffuse light transmittance. This means that every beam of light passing through the glass is sent in a different direction. The advantage is that the amount of sunlight received by the leaves of a plant is more uniform than is the case for normal glass. For example, the lower leaves of tomato or cucumber plants are often shaded by the leaves growing above them, making diffuse light much more beneficial than direct light as the plants can increase their photosynthesis rate temporarily. This results in yield increases of up to 6 % at constant energy input. Another approach to making better use of solar radiation is a combination of glass and foil that slashes heating energy requirements by up to 50 % and has been patented by Forschungszentrum Jülich. Panels are used that are made of low-iron solar glass with an anti-reflective coating on both sides to ensure a very high light transmittance. The panels increase the transmittance for the spectral range used by plants for photosynthesis to almost 99 %. The light conditions in the greenhouse therefore closely resemble those outdoors. In this way, plants that will later grow outdoors are ‘toughened up’ in advance under glass, which prevents losses due to burns from UV light. In addition, an increased permeability to light not only increases the yield, but also the quality of a number of products. In some cultivated plants, increased UV transparency can lead to improved flavours. An air-cushioned foil made of lightweight and durable ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) covers the glass and provides heat insulation for the greenhouse. When snow falls on the greenhouse and blocks the light, the air can be released from this insulating cushion. This allows the snow to melt and the light to penetrate the greenhouse unimpeded once again. As the foil is almost entirely dirt-repellent, cleaning it is hardly ever necessary: the rain will wash away any dirt almost completely.

However, it is not only heating that requires energy, but also cooling. Here, too, Jülich has developed and patented a solution: solar chimneys. The high black towers on the greenhouses use the stack effect to conduct warm air upwards and out of the facility, with the black surface increasing the ‘suction effect’. These sustainable greenhouse concepts from Forschungszentrum Jülich are now also applied in the tropics.

Soil research

More and more land is now converted for agricultural uses, not only for the production of food, but also for biomass as a basis for producing raw materials and generating energy. Just like climate change, this more intensive land use leads to changes in our terrestrial systems: pesticides and fertilizers leave their mark, and long-term changes in precipitation and temperature patterns caused by climate change have a lasting influence on the solute fluxes in soils.

In order to provide sustainable protection for soils and drinking water, it must be studied how these changes influence terrestrial systems and how soils adapt to changing conditions.

How long do anthropogenic substances, i.e. substances that enter the soil due to human activity, stay in the soil? How do they behave there? What are the exchange processes that take place between the soil, plants, and the atmosphere?

Jülich scientists are studying these correlations on the laboratory and the field scale. They use the measurement data from experiments carried out with innovative sensor networks to model and predict possible developments. Their aim is to make recommendations for a resource-conserving use of soils and water.

In a water works of the city of Zurich (Switzerland), research findings from Jülich are already being implemented in a ground water model. The water quality is measured with a large number of sensors, and the measured data are combined with model predictions in real time. In this way, contamination caused by polluted ground water can be controlled based on the current flow conditions in the wells. This means that flexible decisions can be made for the optimal management of the well field in real time. This scientific approach can be transferred and adapted to other problems.

Atmospheric research

Climate change and dealing with global warming are enormous challenges for the coming century. For decades, Jülich scientists have been investigating the complex processes in the atmosphere in order to understand the chemistry and dynamics of the different layers of air. One goal is to identify which mechanisms can be tweaked to slow down global warming.

This is the aim of the EU PEGASOS project (Pan-European Gas-Aerosols-Climate Interaction Study), for example. Together with 26 partners from 14 European countries and Israel, Jülich scientists are investigating the influence of atmospheric chemistry on climate change. The results will form the basis for EU-wide climate protection measures and will also be made available to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Jülich researchers coordinated the Zeppelin NT’s largest scientific mission to date. For a total of 20 weeks, the airship served as a measuring platform from which the scientists investigated the air composition above a range of different regions in Europe, starting from the Netherlands, then the Po Valley in Italy, across the Adriatic, and finally on to Finland. For the first time, the Zeppelin NT provided comprehensive data from a region that is difficult to access, the planetary boundary layer at an altitude of up to 2,000 metres. It is precisely in this chemically very reactive, but as yet little investigated region that the fate of most of the pollutants emitted on the earth’s surface is decided.

For higher layers of the atmosphere, Jülich researchers made use of the new German long-distance research aircraft, HALO. It can fly in the upper troposphere up to the lower stratosphere. Jülich scientists use the special measuring instruments on board to analyse, for example, the structure of mixed-phase clouds. The ratio of ice crystals and water vapour in these clouds determines whether clouds reflect the sunlight impinging on the earth or whether they store heat ascending from the surface of the earth. These data are still the great unknown in all climate models thus making predictions imprecise.

In the upper stratosphere, high-altitude aircraft such as Geophysica and special balloons are used, for example, to explore the ozone layer. In an EU project, atmospheric researchers were thus able to confirm the positive effect of the ban on CFCs and obtain new insights into the degradation of ozone and the emergence of ozone holes.

The researchers intend to gain further global insights by means of data obtained through international scheduled flights. In cooperation with various international airlines, commercial airliners are equipped with sensors for long-term atmospheric monitoring.