"For the Energy Transition, We Have to Rely on Diversity."
is Director of the Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-1) at Forschungszentrum Jülich since 2014.
Prof. Dr. Olivier Guillon is Director of the Institute of Energy and Climate Research: Materials Synthesis and Processing (IEK-1) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. The institute is working on forward-looking topics such as the development of novel, improved battery types for stationary and mobile applications and the development of solid oxide fuel cells. In an interview with the Interceram, Prof. Guillon explains what makes the research location Jülich special, clarifies misconceptions about fuel cell technology and talks about his vision of an energy transition.
Interceram: What makes the Forschungszentrum Jülich internationally unique as a research location?
Olivier Guillon: Forschungszentrum Jülich is a multidisciplinary centre with different core areas. We have research here in the fields of information technology, supercomputers, brain research, energy and atmosphere research and bioeconomy. Forschungszentrum Jülich is one of the largest research institutions in Europe. Our motto is application-oriented fundamental research. At the Institute, we try to build a bridge between basic research and the application of energy technologies.
And what I think is unique here is the infrastructure. It is really incredible what equipment and systems have been accumulating over the decades. We also build on many years of interdisciplinary expertise that has been developed in various fields. We are very strong in the field of materials science, but at Forschungszentrum Jülich it goes beyond that. We also test technologies and integrate them into an energy system of the future. Our campus is becoming a field of investigation.
In which areas can ceramics contribute to energy technologies?
Ceramics are practically everywhere, but almost always hidden. They are a typical "hidden champions". Ceramic materials have unique properties and that is why they are used. Often the user is not even aware of it. In electronic devices, for example, there are many small parts made of ceramic. This is also the case with energy technologies. Ceramics play a role in power generation, gas turbines, nuclear technologies, solar energy and generally at high temperatures, where stable materials are needed. No other class of materials has such mechanical stability and resistance to aggressive media.
Then there are the electrochemical applications, where ceramics are used because of their conductivity. Some ceramics can conduct ions and electrons very well, which is a decisive property for gas separation membranes, solid oxide fuel cells, electrolysis and batteries such as lithium or sodium batteries.
Forschungszentrum Jülich has been researching fuel cells based on oxide ceramics since the early 1990s. Has public interest in your research projects increased noticeably in the last few years?
There are always waves of interest or disinterest in research topics. In fuel cell research we have noticed a significantly higher level of interest for about a year and a half now. Back in the 90s there was a lot of attention, then the topic was out of fashion for some time. Now companies are also coming back to us in increasing numbers. Often it is the case that companies have temporarily given up research in such areas and then come back a few years later. It takes a lot of patience to develop a new technology. The management level often thinks in far to short-sighted terms. There are of course exceptions.
Are there frequent misconceptions in the public about fuel cells that you would like to clarify?
Yes, there is a public misconception, even among scientists: A fuel cell car is an electric car, meaning a car with an electric drive system. When you talk about an electric car, a lot of people always think of battery vehicles. But this is not correct. On the other hand, there will always be a battery in fuel cell cars, but much smaller than in "battery electric vehicles".
How realistic do you think the EU's climate and energy targets for 2030 are?
We're too slow. We need a broad diffusion of technologies in energy storage and conversion. And of course these technologies are more expensive in the beginning, so you need a political framework that offers customers and industry prospects over a long period of time. We are already seeing changes there, but I'm not sure if that is fast enough.
To overcome the cost hurdle and possible lack of acceptance, industry, society and politics must work together. Industrial alliances should be pursued in battery research and research on fuel cells. There are already technologies that work. At some point we have to start with a first generation, which may not yet be completely optimal.
What is your vision for the energy transition?
I am optimistic that we can still catch up quickly. It would have been necessary to start 20 years ago. So we have to move fast. The vision is that within 10 years a total transformation will be initiated. But you have to be really open here. A few years ago there was 'monotheism' in photovoltaics as the ultimate solution, then all hope was put on batteries. It is only in the last year or so that more and more people understand that you need a little bit of everything, because there are different technologies that make sense for different markets and applications. There is not just one battery technology, not just one fuel cell technology. And if you use this broad spectrum, you can achieve a lot. The time when people said that nuclear technologies can save everything or photovoltaics can save everything is over. That is too short a thinking, the reality is much more complex. My vision is that environmentally compatible, sustainable solutions will be implemented.