Translation: Nicole Conrad
“With the future factory, we want to transform Lusatia into a high-tech landscape”
IKTS experts outline concepts for the water management of tomorrow
The Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems IKTS has proposed to the federal government to set up a large-scale research center “WE2T-Transfer – Future Factory Lusatia – Research and Transfer Center for Water, Energy and Food Technologies” in Lusatia. About 1500 researchers in interdisciplinary teams are to investigate the major questions of our time on an industrial scale: How do we supply a growing population on our planet with food, energy, and water? How useful are decentralized, regional solutions for this? IKTS experts Prof. Michael Stelter and Dr. Burkhardt Faßauer explain their water management concepts in this interview.
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research received about 110 proposals for large-scale research centers in the lignite mining regions. Why should the funders choose the IKTS proposal?
Michael Stelter: Water is a huge topic – for Saxony and the whole world. This natural resource is becoming increasingly scarce, in France and Portugal as well as Lusatia: Forests dry up, the groundwater level drops. As the water withdrawal discussion around the Tesla plant in Grünheide shows, large settlements are soon no longer possible in many regions because water for it is missing. What drought means for agriculture probably does not need to be explained.
In our future factory, we want to show that new technologies, which already work individually and in laboratory scale, are also applicable in large scale in order to solve these serious problems for Lusatia and many other regions all over the world. We think that our future factory has good chances to do so.
Which competencies does Fraunhofer IKTS put in the balance?
Michael Stelter: IKTS with its approx. 800 employees is the biggest Fraunhofer institute in Eastern German and is regionally anchored at many locations. Fuel cells, foam ceramics, membranes, nutrient recycling concepts and hydrogen technologies have been in our focus for many years. So, we bring a special clout to the table to lead pioneering technologies in the future factory up to practical maturity.
Burkhardt Faßauer: And we are talking about groundbreaking solutions here – the sheer dimension of the future factory and the cross-sector approach, which brings together water, energy, and food in real dimensions. Research infrastructures of this size are also necessary: Not only scientists but also many of the small and medium-sized innovators – also from the Saxon economy – can thus test their novel environmental technologies realistically for the first time in interaction.
Remove pollutants to the last
Can you give us an example for the technologies, with which you want to pursue resource-efficient water use with its implications for the climate-neutral energy and food economy with regional partners?
Burkhardt Faßauer: Think about how many people use pain gels. Under the shower, a large part of the rubbed medicine washes into the wastewater. How to get residues of everyday medication, hormones, and antibiotics – so-called trace substances – out of the water has become a big topic. One solution is the use of activated carbon filters, but their production is costly and consumes a lot of energy. Others want to remove the medication from wastewater with ozone. However, intermediates can be formed in the process, which are partly more hazardous than medication residues.
We, on the other hand, would like to electrochemically remove the harmful substances to the last remnant in the future factory so that only water and carbon dioxide remain. For this, we use stacks that are similar to fuel cell stacks. In these, we tear water molecules apart, so to speak, with high energy. This creates hydroxyl radicals, which are short-lived and reactive molecules. They remove medication residues and hormones in wastewater. This process can be accelerated when supported by ultrasound.
Michael Stelter: Which brings us back to the special approach of the future factory, which can be imagined as a giant sandbox in which everyone can play along. Some bring their ultrasound technology with them; others combine this with ultraviolet radiation and so on until the most efficient solution is found. In this way, an affordable solution then crystallizes for the long-discussed fourth treatment stage, which has been demanded for years. In parallel, we also want to develop smaller, decentralized modules. Our partners from the economy can then sell these in countries, which do not have a water infrastructure like the one in Germany, where restaurant owners or café hosts nevertheless want to offer clean drinking water from their home network. In this respect, I also see many export opportunities arising from the future factory.
Lusatia is like a focusing glass, which shows the future.
Why do you want to test all this in Lusatia of all places?
Michael Stelter: Lusatia is like a focusing glass. The problems that many traditional mining regions will face in the coming years are already becoming apparent here. As a consequence of the depletion of fossil raw materials, the groundwater level has dropped, waters have dried out and the provision of sufficient water has become a substantial challenge. As a result, harvest failures in Lusatia have accumulated and the forest stand is severely affected. Additionally, the region has an obligation to create new prospects for the local population now that Germany is phasing out coal.
How much support do you have with your ideas on site?
Michael Stelter: Before we wrote down our concept, we talked to many local stakeholders in Lusatia and asked them what they really need. We talked to mayors, district councils, local business, and regional organizations. That is why we have so much support for our ideas on site. We are not interested in erecting ivory towers for science next to the old opencast mines that do not have connections to Lusatia. Instead, we want to establish a large-scale research center of the importance of a CERN which turns Lusatia into an innovation region of international appeal. The future factory shall ensure demanding jobs and apprenticeships, which secure employment for decades and bind young people to the region.
Future factory will contribute to water, energy and food security
What is your vision: How will the future factory change Lusatia in 10 years?
Michael Stelter: Humans and nature need clean water in sufficient quantity. The future factory will help bring this goal closer, both locally and globally. In Lusatia, we want to set an example for other mining regions and generally for regions all over the world that are drying up. Where once brown coal dominated, we want to pave the way for innovative companies to create employment, export pioneering environmental technology to the whole world, perfect water- and space-saving agricultural approaches like “vertical farming”, and build other new value-added chains. With the future factory, we want to transform Lusatia into a high-tech landscape.
- Future factory Lusatia: answers to the global resource hunger
- Video: "Future factory Lusatia: answers to the global resource hunger" (German language)