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Energies of the future

Green Germany

Government, companies and research centers move forward together to expand the use of renewable sources

Photo Carlos Fioravanti / Illustration Ana Paula CamposFrom Berlin*

The results of a joint action plan that the German federal government prepared in 2008 with universities, research centers and companies are beginning to appear. The objective was to expand international cooperation in science and technology, compensate for domestic limitations and encourage the use of so-called green technologies – more modern production methods that use fewer raw materials, consume less energy and do less damage to the environment than those based on the use of fossil fuels.

In the production center of the Fraunhofer Institute (IPK) in Berlin, a circular construction surrounded by transparent glass that is reminiscent of a sports’ hall filled with machinery, a young engineer shows the solid carbon dioxide (CO2) in the form small pieces of ice, which he places in the hands of the more curious visitors from a small trowel, asking them to move it quickly from one hand to another so as not to burn themselves. This technology, he explains, illustrates the possibility of reusing CO2, a common waste product in industrial processes and one that is already being used experimentally in the German automobile industry. He then places a painted metallic plate in a machine that fires jets of solid CO2 in a closed glass cabin. The jets remove the paint from the plate, which in just a few minutes is clean and frozen.

Since 1986, the technology center has been home to teams from IPK, which was created in 1976, and from the Institute for Machine Tools and Industrial Management (IWF), from 1904. “We’re two institutions but we work together,” says Jens König, project manager for IPK, one of the biggest centers of applied research in Germany, with 56 laboratories throughout the country, 13,000 scientists and engineers and an annual budget of € 1.6 billion, of which € 1.4 billion comes from contracts with companies.

“We have a collaboration project with Brazil,” says König, referring to Bragecrim, the acronym for the Brazilian-German Collaborative Research Initiative on Manufacturing Technology. This program brings together some 30 universities, companies and research centers from the two countries, with the purpose of improving the precision of machine tools. Meeting together in November in Florianopolis, in the state of Santa Catarina, the coordinators of some 20 Bragecrim projects decided to continue with the program, which began 2 years ago and receives financial support from federal science and technology funding agencies from each country.

“We saw that we had neither the people, nor the time and the money to do everything we wanted to do,” recognizes Eckart Lilienthal, coordinator of the international cooperation strategy of the Ministry of Education and Research. “This strategy was discussed with representatives from all the ministries, research centers and universities in Germany. It was not introduced from the top down, because a plan like this one cannot be carried out by just one ministry. We’re advancing step by step.”

Both the traditional partners from Germany and North America, as well as those from the developing countries, like Brazil, are gaining more attention. In August, the DFG (German Scientific Research Foundation) and FAPESP renewed the collaboration agreement between the two institutions, which supports the carrying out of joint projects between the two countries for a further five years. In September, the general secretary of the German Academic Interchange Service (Daad), Dorothea Rüland, was in Rio de Janeiro to see how to attract more Brazilians and, inversely, how to send more German researchers to Brazil. Functioning since 1972, the office of Daad in Rio coordinates some 30 student and researcher interchange programs, in partnership with federal and state scientific research support agencies.

Carlos FioravantiCharitè University: recovered after the war, one of the icons of German pioneering in medicineCarlos Fioravanti

The Germans invest heavily in science and technology. In 2009, total spending in this area was US$ 82 billion, the equivalent of 2.8% of its GDP, while in Brazil it was US$ 24 billion, or 1.19% of GDP. “Of the public federal budget, 10% is going to education and research,” says Lilienthal. Germany has a network of more than 300 universities and basic research centers, like the Max Planck institute, with 77 units, 13,000 employees, 17 Nobel Prize winners throughout its history and an annual budget of € 1.3 billion (R$ 3.1 billion). Companies (some of them huge, such as Siemens, Basf and Volkswagen) account for two thirds of the annual spending on research and development.

The interaction between companies and public research centers is intense and goes back a long way. In 1910, right after a doctor, Paul Ehrlich, noted that an arsenic product that he had synthesized after 605 attempts controlled syphilis in infected rats, the pharmaceutical company Hoechst quickly started producing the compound in amounts sufficient to carry out effectiveness and toxicity tests on human beings and after that, for extensive consumption.

The decision of the German government after the accident at Fukushima in Japan to close eight older nuclear power stations, all of them by 2022, has added to the value of green technologies, which are now a priority. Since Germans are cautious by nature,  many were still functioning, so they were not left in the dark or in the cold because of a lack of heaters (for many years nuclear power stations supplied a third of the energy consumed in the country). The 21,000 functioning wind power stations supply a third of the electricity on the coldest winter days in Germany, whose target is to generate at least 20% of its electricity via renewable energy by 2020. At the end of 2010, the renewable energy sector was at full strength and already employing 340,000 people. In 2011, the federal government, via a national campaign, promoted green (environmentally correct) production technologies, developed by companies and research centers.

There is still a lot of debate about the fact that renewable energy sources are heavily subsidized as a means of promoting consumption. “Just subsidizing is not the solution,” says Hans-Josef Fell, a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, and spokesperson on energy policies for the Green Party. “We need to combine strategies for reducing energy consumption, the production of waste and carbon dioxide emissions.”

Rutger Schlatmann, director of PVcomB, a company that develops fine films and photovoltaic materials, also believes that the best option will be a combination of different ways of producing energy. “We can have good products, but it will be useless if we don’t also have educated people who are prepared to save energy,” he says. In this area, says Iver Lauermann, a researcher from the Helmholtz materials and energy center, one of the research institutes linked to PVcomB, one of the current targets is to improve the performance of the fine films used in panels for producing solar energy and substitute a toxic component, cadmium, found in them.

“We’re engineers; we don’t talk a lot, but we like to show the machines we’re making,” says Stefan Kozielski, director of the integrated production technologies’ center of excellence, which brings together some 30 companies, 25 research institutes and 150 researchers in various buildings in the University of Aachen, in Aachen, a city in western Germany, on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. One of the development projects is the Street Scooter, an electric car with autonomy of 130 km and a maximum speed of 130 km per hour, which should go into production on a small scale in 2012. Its price to the consumer is likely to be around € 5000.

“In 2020, 10% of all automobiles in the world will be electric, but it will be expensive,” says Lino Santacruz-Moctezuma, coordinator of communication for Autostadt, an automotive center with museums and exhibitions close to the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg. According to Lino, Volkswagen is now prioritizing the development of new models of low cost, environmentally correct, practical cars, by first of all taking advantage of its accrued knowledge of gasoline and diesel engines. The prototypes of the VW electric car, which should start being sold commercially in 2015, are already in Autostadt’s yard and move completely silently, as if they were standing still and switched off.

Carlos FioravantiElectric cars and other innovative ideas are already visible in the streets of GermanyCarlos Fioravanti

Lilienthal emphasizes an important point in the science and technology production strategy in public research centers and companies in Germany: “Activities have to be synchronized.” Efforts to link together the various initiatives are obvious. In addition to a concept, presenting the country as “the land of ideas” (in German, Land der ideen), a page on the Internet carries news and information about science and technology for researchers from companies and academic institutions.

These actions are reunifying German science, which used to be the best in the world. At the beginning of the last century, Brazilian doctors and researchers spoke and wrote German and almost every year a German scientist won the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine. The Nazis later valued health and insisted that Germans give up smoking as a way of avoiding disease, but eliminated many Jewish scientists who had not emigrated. Just in the Charité Hospital, where doctors such as Robert Kock, who identified the agent that caused tuberculosis, and Paul Ehrlich, who discovered the treatment for syphilis, worked, 145 professors were dismissed, emigrated or died in concentration camps. The Jewish doctor Otto Weisburg only escaped because he had made fundamental discoveries on the functioning of tumor cells and had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1931.

Allied bombing during the Second World War almost completely destroyed Berlin. Obviously, the research centers (and the mainly Jewish researchers) also lost their buildings and their teams, which have now been finally rebuilt. “Germans have a notable sense of purpose and team work,” observed Mexican chemist Luis Manoel Guerra, who studied in Munich from 1968 to 1971, working at night at Bayer to pay for his studies. “They didn’t ask themselves if they’d manage to rebuild the country, but how they could do it.”

Known for their organization, obsession with doing things well and for their vision of the future, but also for their inflexibility and great attachment to hierarchy, the Germans have once again made the country’s science and technology system one of the most powerful in the world. In many senses Germany is already a “land of ideas,” as the slogan proposes. A lot of innovation can already be seen by many people. Electric cars of various brands circulate in the streets of Berlin discreetly, unlike the similar vehicles that gaily circulate in the streets of Paris. The entry to the Hotel Blue, alongside Berlin Cathedral, has an immense aquarium on show that guests can also appreciate from the inside when they pass it in the elevator. One of the pleasant surprises in the store at the History Museum of Germany are the dice, which are spheres rather than cubes.

 * The journalist was a guest of the German Academic Interchange Service (Daad).