Curator

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Prof. Dr. Ferdi Schüth

Director

Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr

Phone: +49 208 306-2373
Fax: +49 208 306-2995

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Chemistry . Climate Research . Complex Systems . Computer Science . Earth Sciences . Ecology . Material Sciences . Microbiology . Plasma Physics . Solid State Research

The energy frontier

Insight into the fundamental processes through which energy is transformed can improve existing energy sources and open up novel technologies. History shows that the most far-reaching applications of fundamental science are often unforeseen. Our energy security relies not just on basic and applied science, but also on taking wider socioeconomic frameworks into account.

Novel technologies that will help to guarantee the worldwide energy supply are urgently needed. Although many aspects of energy science are of an applied nature, for instance finding ways to harness and store the power of wind and waves, research into basic science promises new and perhaps surprising possibilities for moving us beyond our dependence on fossil fuels.

Albert Einstein’s famous equation led to greater understanding of energy transformation and generation. Zoom Image
Albert Einstein’s famous equation led to greater understanding of energy transformation and generation.

In 1905, when Albert Einstein developed his famous formula, E = mc2, revealing the relationship between mass and energy, he could hardly have envisaged the civil nuclear programme that would emerge from our ability to unlock the energy stored in atomic nuclei. Even harder to foresee, a further half-century later, was that humans could be within grasp of producing almost unlimited amounts of clean energy through nuclear fusion.

Fusion energy is a formidable challenge, because it relies on combining hydrogen isotopes to form helium nuclei by confining a plasma at temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees. Several promising approaches are currently being explored, including the giant ITER tokamak project in France, related stellarator designs — in particular the Wendelstein 7-X experiment under construction in Germany, and a number of laser-fusion projects. Commercial power plants could start operating in 2050, providing researchers can overcome significant materials science problems. Not all fundamental energy-related research involves such huge projects and long time-scales, however.

ENERGY TRANSFER

Most people tend to associate ‘energy’ with the immaterial substance that lights our lamps or heats our houses. To scientists, however, energy is a central and well- defined concept that applies right down to molecular and atomic scales.

 
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