Their curiosity, ingenuity and hard work enables researchers to constantly surprise us with new and original ideas. What was impossible yesterday is feasible today – and perfectly normal tomorrow. Ten innovative ideas from Germany:
Eagle Eye in Space
The first German radar satellite for remote sensing had barely completed its first orbit when it broke its first record: TerraSAR-X sent its first images to the Remote Sensing Centre in Neustrelitz from a distance of 514 kilometres within only four days. The images researchers have been receiving since 18 June 2007 are of outstanding quality. With a resolution of up to one metre, the scout in the sky is transmitting detailed pictures of flooding in Mexico and disappearing glaciers in Patagonia, documenting deforestation in rainforests or measuring the speed of North Sea currents off the German coast. The capabilities of the satellite, which was developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Astrium, an EADS subsidiary, are attracting worldwide interest: 1,500 customers from more than 40 countries are standing in line to gain access to TerraSAR-X data. The number will certainly increase even further from 2009 when a second TerraSAR-X satellite will start supplying even sharper images.
Breakthrough for Super Battery
Notebook computers, mobile phones and camcorders have all been run on small lithium-ion batteries for some time. They are small and convenient energy stores that offer the highest performance. Their use in vehicles was previously considered too dangerous. At temperatures of 140 degrees Celsius, the plastic membranes used in these rechargeable batteries to separate the plus and minus poles begin to disintegrate, thereby causing a short circuit. Large lithium-ion batteries that could power a car would explode if they overheat. German battery cell manufacturer Li-Tec has now developed an effective electric power source: Separion is the name of a flexible ceramic membrane that can be rolled like paper and withstands temperatures of up to 450 degrees. Even at higher temperatures, the batteries do not go up in flames, but simply burst. The company is meanwhile cooperating with Bosch and Volkswagen on the product’s further development. The largest German carmaker has already announced the first series production vehicle that will use this electric propulsion system: VW’s Space Up microvan should be on the road by 2010.
Splitting Hairs with Light
Is it possible to drill holes only a millionth of a millimetre in size? Yes, with the latest invention of the Jena-based Institute of Photonic Technology (IPHT). NanoCut is the name of the process that won the German researchers the title “Research Highlight of the Year 2007” awarded by British journal Nature Nanotechnology. NanoCut has succeeded in focusing the energy of a laser on a point the size of human chromosomes for the first time. This makes it possible to target specific areas of genetic material that carry a genetic defect and switch them off – thereby opening up entirely new medical possibilities. The IPHT scientists call this process “optical knockout”. The secret of the process lies in metal nanoparticles that catch the laser light. Impulses excite the particles, which then heat up and burn a precise hole in tissue. As a result, the size of the hole is no longer dependent on the laser, but on the size of the nanoparticles, which in the case of NanoCut are up to 50,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
Hanging by a Thread
Spider’s silk is thinner than a human hair, but more tear-resistant that steel. No scientist had succeeded in reproducing these protein chains until recently, when biotechnologists at TU Munich managed this difficult feat. AMSilk, a spin-off from the university, will begin production of the laboratory spider’s silk in June. In addition to high-performance fibres for industry, it will primarily produce microcapsules made of silk for use as protective coverings for drugs. This robust material makes it possible to transport effective ingredients to specific regions of the body in a targeted way for the first time.
Automated Cell Tests
On average, the development of a new therapeutic drug takes twelve years and costs 800 million dollars. Tests of effective ingredients are what make pharmaceutical research so complicated. Every new drug requires a “target structure” – in other words, a molecule in the body onto which the medicine can dock and thereby influence the respective disease. When researchers find an appropriate structure of this kind, they can test up to two million possible active ingredients before they hit the target. The vast majority of these tests involve manual work, which makes it difficult to meet the requirements of modern pharmacy. However, Munich-based company Nanion Technologies has found a way of automating some of these tests, thereby making the development of new drugs more efficient and safer. The so-called patch-clamp method is still the standard measuring technique in the laboratories of the pharmaceutical industry. It involves a researcher placing a glass micropipette filled with an active ingredient on a cell. An experienced scientist manages ten cells a day. The machine from southern Germany achieves results considerably faster. Controlled by a chip, it reliably investigates one sample after the other. Staff only need a few hours of training to be able to operate the apparatus. The inventors from Munich are thus fulfilling the dream of many researchers. Laboratories in Asia, North America, Europe and Australia are already performing measurements using the new patch-clamp-on-a-chip technology.
Enlightenment for the Microchips of Tomorrow
Intel cofounder Gordon Moore made a bold prediction in 1965: the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years and their performance would increase dramatically. The US entrepreneur has proved right. Today, 43 years later, a single chip has more than one billion transistors – and forms the basis for PCs, MP3 players and the Internet. Yet, it is also true that the conventional production technique for microchips has reached its limits. It is no wonder then that the semiconductor industry is now looking expectantly to Germany, or to be more precise, to Oberkochen in Baden-Württemberg. With EUV lithography, Carl Zeiss SMT has achieved the breakthrough for the microchips of the future. The optics specialists can cram ten times as many electronic circuits onto a chip as in the past using extreme ultraviolet (EUV) radiation. A comparison helps to illustrate how fine the dimensions are here: if a microchip were a normal A4 sheet of paper, EUV technology would make it possible to print an edition of Deutschland 53,000 times on one page. Zeiss engineers have spent ten years working on this technological breakthrough and registered over 50 patents in the process. They have made research history by breaking numerous world records in mechatronics and optical systems. The world’s most modern factory for lithography optics has been created in the process.
Ray of Hope for the Environment
Would you like a light source that consumes significantly less electricity and lasts much longer than light bulbs, withstands vibration without damage and at the same time shines more brightly than almost all other kinds of lamp? What sounds like a futuristic dream received the 2007 German Future Prize from Federal President Horst Köhler at the end of last year: Osram’s new generation of highly efficient light-emitting diodes. Known as LEDs for short, these small light sources have been around for some time, but only now are they bright enough to replace conventional lamps. The heart of an LED is a small semiconductor chip that generates light when it receives an electric charge. The intensity of this light used to be very low. As a result, they were only used where brightness was not important – for example, for the indicator lights in electrical appliances or in telephone displays. The Osram engineers succeeded in dramatically increasing the amount of light produced by integrating a metal reflector in the chip and then combining several LEDs to form large blocks. With the aid of this thin-film technology, LEDs can now be used in television screens, street lamps and projectors as well as in headlights and nightsight equipment for cars. This will save tonnes of CO2 and lots of money: no other light source generates light of such intensity with so little electricity.
Treatment with Ion-Beam Scalpel
You can’t even see a reddening of the skin. Nevertheless, ion beams are destroying a non-operable tumour with millimetre precision 30 centimetres inside the body. For ten years, researchers at the Society for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt have been carrying out trials on cancer patients with the electrically charged atoms – and achieving excellent results. Shortly, the globally unique procedure will begin clinical application at the Heidelberg Ion-Beam Radiotherapy Center (HIT), where it is planned to treat more than 1,000 patients a year. The technique is especially well-suited for deep tumours in high risk organs, such as the brain. The ion beams release their energy in a pinhead-sized area without destroying healthy surrounding tissue.
The fears were great in the Bavarian village of Irsching. In mid-December, people were saying the vibrations from 13 jumbo jet engines would make the entire village shake. Just rumours. When the Siemens engineers eventually arrived to turn on their newest gas turbine, everything stayed calm – the only thing broken was the world record for the largest and most powerful gas turbine. The Siemens SGT5-8000H weighs 440 tonnes and is as large as a house – 13 metres long, 5 metres high and 5 metres wide. Its output of 340 megawatts, which really does correspond to 13 jumbo jet engines, is sufficient to supply electricity to a city like Hamburg with one million inhabitants. Crucially, however, thanks to its efficiency, this metal powerhouse will produce 40,000 tonnes less carbon dioxide a year than a conventional plant. The ecological audit will soon be even better: following a test phase, the engineers will link the turbine with a unit that uses the exhaust emissions to drive a steam turbine. This will create a gas- and steam-powered plant that transforms more than 60% of the energy used into electricity. Yet another world record from the Bavarian countryside.
Put the Sun in Your Tank
Industrial companies need a reliable energy supply around the clock. That is why solar energy has so far played only a small role for manufacturing firms. An invention of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) will possibly change that. Utilizing the power of the sun at night or in cloudy weather will no longer remain a dream. In November 2007, for the first time, DLR researchers used a heat storage unit that can temporarily store steam generated in solarthermal power plants for several hours and return it to the generating plant when required, in other words, also at night. The innovative facility is operated at the largest European solar energy test centre, Plataforma Solar de Almería in Spain. The storage unit outputs 100 kilowatts and handles solar-generated steam with a temperature of between 200 and 300 degrees Celsius. Until now, no system conceived for the operating temperatures of solar thermal power plants has outlived the test phase. No one had managed to produce a storage unit with sufficient power density. The DLR scientists succeeded with a sandwich design that combines several alternate layers of graphite foil and storage material. The potential of this design has not yet been fully exploited. The German Aerospace Center has already announced the launch of a follow-up project with an even more ambitious goal: the engineers plan to expand their storage principle to a one-megawatt plant. This would even involve maintaining steam temperatures of over 300 degrees Celsius for many hours, which would make round-the-clock solar energy attractive not only for solar thermal power plants.
By Rainer Stumpf; Source/Copyright: