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© Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH
Solutions for tomorrow’s world

March 11, 2008

by Roland Knauer

New materials, environmentally friendly energy sources, treatments for hitherto incurable diseases, the causes of climate change – these are just a few of the problems the Research Centre Jülich is trying to solve.

Jülich is a small town in the far west of Germany. It has a market square with a town hall, a witches’ tower (the town’s landmark) and 33,000 inhabitants spread over the town itself and 15 outlying villages. Nothing world-shattering. And yet the “green metropolis”, as Jülich likes to call itself, has been mentioned a lot in the world press lately. For several reasons. First, in October 2007 the Nobel Prize for Physics went to Jülich, or more precisely to Peter Grünberg from the Research Centre Jülich and his French colleague Albert Fert for their discovery of giant magnetoresistance. Second, the most efficient civilian supercomputer in the world will be commissioned at the Research Centre Jülich in February 2008. And third, the Research Centre is not only one of the biggest in Europe, it also regularly hits the headlines with exciting new discoveries.

But let’s take it one thing at a time. On 11 December 1956, the state parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia set up a major research centre in the woods near Jülich. Its primary research focus was to be nuclear fission. Jülich later developed the high-temperature reactor, which, at a running temperature of 950°C, not only produces electricity but can simultaneously refine coal or deliver district heating to nearby housing areas. When German public opinion increasingly turned against nuclear energy in the 1980s, plans for the commercial use of high-temperature reactors were shelved. The nuclear research facility at Jülich looked for new challenges. New fields of research took over from nuclear research after the name was changed to “Research Centre Jülich”. The turnaround was completed many years ago. “Only 1-2% of our activities are related to nuclear fission,” says Peter Schäfer, staff member in the Centre’s communications unit and himself an original from Jülich.

Today, Jülich’s key competences are in the fields of physics, supercomputing and materials science. The Centre focuses on future challenges in health, energy, the environment and information, making fundamental and interdisciplinary contributions to the natural sciences and technology as well as developing practical technical applications. Many of the new fields have their roots in nuclear research. For example, ceramic materials were produced in Jülich for the high-temperature reactor, but they are now used as coatings for aircraft turbines. Because these materials can withstand extreme heat, the turbines can run at higher temperatures. This improves efficiency, the turbine uses less fuel and emits less carbon dioxide without losing power.

Yet Jülich had also been working in many other fields apart from nuclear fission for a long time, including solid-state and environmental research, and these were expanded and supplemented by other disciplines. So the transition was a smooth one. In the 1980s the solid-state physicist Peter Grünberg also continued his work and was ultimately rewarded with a Nobel Prize. And because information technology had also become important, it was a logical step for Jülich to use the recently discovered giant magnetoresistance for computer technology. As early as 1997 the first read/write head ever built using this effect was able to store a very large amount of data in a very small space on a hard drive. Today, it’s hard to find computer or a laptop that doesn’t use this technology. The discovery turned out to be very worthwhile, by the way, and not only because of the Nobel Prize: Jülich has since received some ten million euros in licence fees – mostly in yens and dollars.

In the meantime, the Jülich Research Centre, with its staff of 4,400, has developed into a small town with a 40-kilometre network of roads and paths with its own guidance system. It is part of the Helmholtz Association, Germany’s biggest research organization with 26,500 employees, 15 institutes and an annual budget of 2.3 billion euros. The Association focuses on the great and pressing issues of humanity and is internationally well-networked. Some 800 visiting scientists from more than 50 countries come to Jülich every year to engage in research and exchange information with colleagues.

The Research Centre Jülich has also been strong in environmental research for decades. “We drew attention to ozone depletion in the stratosphere and the issue of carbon dioxide and the climate long before anyone else,” says Peter Schäfer. Jülich-based researchers Martin Riese and Cornelius Schiller are still investigating the relationship between the hole in the ozone layer and climate change. Even now, many years after they were banned, CFCs (formerly used as refrigerants and aerosol propellants) are still present high up in the atmosphere. Chemical reactions with CFCs damage the ozone layer, which usually absorbs the dangerous ultraviolet rays before they can cause skin cancer or genetic damage on the ground. Above the Earth’s polar regions such processes can tear a hole in this protective ozone layer.

Environmental research is complemented in Jülich by energy research. Photovoltaic cells are being developed that are expected to generate electricity directly from sunlight more cheaply using what is known as “amorphous silicon”. At the same time, engineers are working on hydrogen technology for fuel cells that will probably supply energy for vehicles in the future. “Our approach is that energy and the environment belong together,” explains Peter Schäfer. The researchers at Jülich are therefore also investigating the possible impact of hydrogen technology on the environment. The energy of the future could also come from nuclear fusion. The international community is collaborating on a project to generate power (in perhaps 35 years) from the fusion of hydrogen atoms, which are abundant. Jülich is playing a key role in these projects.

The health sector has also been an important field for the Research Centre Jülich for many years. More and more people are growing older and older. One aim of health research at Jülich is therefore to improve the diagnosis and treatment of age-related brain diseases using biophysical methods and imaging procedures. The researchers apply state-of-the-art technology and use four procedures simultaneously to turn brain activity into images. By combining positron emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetoencephalo-graphy (MEG), they are gaining deeper insights than anyone else in the world.

For this huge range of projects the researchers need good computers, of course, and they cooperate closely with RWTH Aachen University and the universities of Bonn, Cologne and Düsseldorf. Here, too, however, Jülich has something unusual to offer: the “Jugene” supercomputer, the world’s most efficient computer in civilian use. There is only one computer (in the USA) that is more powerful. Researchers from all over Germany ask for capacity to process their simulations, because the computer can carry out calculations in just a few hours that would otherwise take weeks or months. Entire research areas would be impossible without it. “Please don’t ask me for a list of all the people who use the supercomputer,” pleads Peter Shepherd. “It’s easier to say who doesn’t in Jülich. There aren’t as many!” So look out for the next headline from this small town in the region where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet.



© Deutschland Magazine/February/March 2008
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