March 17, 2016

40 years of DLR energy research: "No one would have understood decarbonisation in 1976"

This year, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is celebrating 40 years of energy research and reflects on the very first days with the protagonists. One of these is Carl-Jochen Winter, a hydrogen researcher who was involved from the very beginning. From 1976 to 1992, he was vice president of Materials Construction and Energy at the former DFVLR. Just two years after the establishment of the new Energy Research Center, in 1978, the DFVLR introduced Europe's first hydrogen car. In an interview with science journalist Tim Schröder, Winter talks about the beginnings of hydrogen technology and why this period was extremely exciting for developers.

Carl-Jochen Winter studied structural dynamics at Darmstadt Technical University and then worked at the Dornier aviation and technology company and was professor of energy technology at the University of Stuttgart. Until 2012, Winter was Vice President of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy (IAHE) and was responsible in particular for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Mr Winter, in the 1978 article 'Thinking the Unthinkable', STERN magazine referred to you and your colleague Joachim Nitsch as "the smartest advocates of the Sun and hydrogen in the country." You are still regarded as a pioneer of hydrogen research in Germany. Could it be foreseen, when you came to the former DFVLR back in 1976, that hydrogen would become a permanent part of the energy mix of the future just a few years later?

At that time, it was clear to us that the world's energy supply had to be completely rebuilt. We had the idea of using the Sun to generate large quantities of hydrogen and thus cover a large part of the future energy needs of humankind. For us technicians, it was the first thing that came to mind. Through the development of rocket propulsion, we were familiar with hydrogen. Transferring hydrogen to the car, for example, was only a small step for us. The industry and the public, of course, saw this quite differently.

That sounds as if it would have been child’s play to get hydrogen on the ground...

... of course not. We developers were actually continuously technically overwhelmed because we repeatedly encountered issues for which there were still no answers. But that was exactly what made the work so fascinating. We were working on completely new technologies. Incidentally, with success, in 1978 my colleague Walter Peschka converted a BMW into a hydrogen car. The tank filled the whole of the boot. The car was refuelled at a newly developed semi-automatic pump. I had a special responsibility as a director because I set research priorities in my field and had to promote technologies whose future was not really in sight yet. The BMW, for example, was a great success. There was practically nothing else like it at the time. Our development attracted the world's attention and our DFVLR group became known outside of Germany. With the BMW, we were also on our way to the United States. Today, by the way, the car is in the BMW Museum in Munich.

Despite that success, hydrogen has still not progressed on a significant scale as an energy source. How do you explain that?

My motto is: Energy needs time! A form of energy takes many decades or even half centuries to establish itself. Coal has provided the world with energy for more than 200 years. The diesel engine is 120 years old. Both could now be replaced. And yet this transition will take many more years.

Back then, did you expect that hydrogen would establish itself more quickly?

In a way, yes. For us, hydrogen was the energy source of the 21st century. But of course, we also noticed that we were too early. The major industrial groups considered solar, wind and hydrogen energy to be small stuff. The directors of a major electronics company told me at the time that, for him, wonderfully large gas turbines with efficiencies of just under 50 percent would be groundbreaking. Technologically, we had already understood hydrogen in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1987, a pilot plant we had developed went into operation in Saudi Arabia. The project was called 'Hysolar', in which hydrogen was generated with electricity from photovoltaic panels in an electrolysis plant. The plant had an output of 10 kilowatts. By today's standards, that is little. For us, at the time, that was a major step.

And where does hydrogen stand today?

I see a positive trend. Today, compared to back then, hydrogen no longer has opponents. Research, industry, politics – they all see hydrogen as something positive and part of the future energy landscape. Of course, hydrogen is a long way from being established. But, at least today in Germany there are more than 50 hydrogen fuelling stations. In my time at the DFVLR there were three. Moreover, the fact that today the issue of climate change is at the top of the agenda is a major driver, an 'enabler', for renewable energy and also renewably-produced hydrogen.

Nowadays, however, wind and solar power are undoubtedly in the lead.

Yes, in this regard we actually thought the future would be a little bit different. In 1986, Nitsch and I published the book 'Wasserstoff als Energieträger - Technik, Systeme, Wirtschaft' (Hydrogen as energy source - Technology, Systems, Economy) in which we described the future of energy as a hydrogen economy. Hydrogen does not play this role today. We assumed that hydrogen would form the basis of the energy industry. Today, the expectation is more that wind and solar energy are the drivers. Hydrogen is considered to be a significant technology with which excess electricity from photovoltaic panels and wind turbines can be stored. In this context, hydrogen is likely to play a major role in the future. And given the delays in the introduction of electric cars and the discussion on battery technology and range, large automobile companies are once again concentrating on the development of hydrogen combustion engines. The economic interest is, however, not so great at the moment that hydrogen can finally become established. On the whole, I look at the history of hydrogen as a long-range positive development.

During your time as a director at the DFVLR, you promoted the development of solar power plants in addition to hydrogen. How do you rate this research work today?

The development of solar power plants was also something completely new. In 1977, an international consortium in which we, as the DFVLR, were instrumental was commissioned by the International Energy Agency to construct two solar power plants in Almería, Spain, each with a capacity of 500 kilowatts. The power plants were meant to demonstrate the feasibility of the different technologies. The DFVLR was entrusted with the planning, awarding of contracts to industry and the construction and operation. As director of energy research, I was appointed Head of the Executive Committee. The plants in Almería have, until now, been frequently optimised and expanded – and are thus a visible success of our work. All in all, in my time at DFVLR I had a lot of scientific freedom. We could concern ourselves with different technologies and seemingly endless technical aspects. In summary, I would say that we had to start from scratch and have achieved many things.

So, would you say your view of today’s energy landscape is positive?

Absolutely. To give you just one example: In my time at DFVLR, we couldn't use the word 'decarbonisation' because no one understood us. I remember a politician shaking his head at the term. Today, the whole world is talking about it. At the UN climate summit in Paris last December the heads of government from all over the world actually officially set themselves the goal of decarbonising the global economy. For me, that is a sign that we have come a long way. Of course, fossil energy cannot be replaced overnight. Coal, for example, is also an important social element. Worldwide, millions of workers are currently dependent on coal. We know how we can change the energy system. But to do this, many steps must be taken in the years to come. Here too, as before: Energy needs time!

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Dorothee Bürkle

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Media Relations, Energy and Transport Research