Public support to accelerate the energy transition is at an all-time high, but there is growing awareness that existing technology alone will not be enough to create a fully sustainable energy system. DIFFER's new strategic plan for the period 2017-2022 aims to address fundamental challenges to realizing a flexible, sustainable energy infrastructure.
"DIFFER is fully committed to meeting this grand societal challenge", says Richard van de Sanden, the director of the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research. "Over the past year, we detailed our ambitions in our new strategic plan. DIFFER's mission of Science for Future Energy directs us to perform leading fundamental research on materials, processes and systems for a global sustainable energy infrastructure, in close partnership with (inter)national academia and industry."
Focus on Fusion Energy and Solar Fuels
In the coming years, DIFFER will maintain its strong focus on the two research themes of Fusion Energy and Solar Fuels. Building on the institute's existing strengths in these fields allows it to make a strong national and international impact together with its research partners, while also providing the tools for smaller explorative efforts in related fields of energy research.
The DIFFER Solar Fuels theme explores novel approaches to convert sustainable energy into CO2-neutral fuels and chemical products in a programmatic way. This research theme was set up in the previous strategic period and has already generated impressive first results in its research lines on non-thermal chemical processes, functional materials and interfaces, and light-matter interaction.
Left: photoelectrochemical cell for water splitting reactions. Right: plasmolysis setup using renewable energy to efficiently dissociate CO2 into the building blocks for fuels and chemicals.
"In the past year, we delivered state of the art laboratories for this multidisciplinary theme", explains Van de Sanden. "The theme brings together expertise in chemistry, physics, materials science and engineering. This will help us make a major contribution towards realizing seasonal energy storage, long distance mobility and electrification of chemical processes."
Prospects are equally good for DIFFER’s established research theme on Fusion Energy. With its in-house linear plasma generator Magnum-PSI, DIFFER can validate materials choices that can withstand the extreme conditions expected in the worldwide fusion project ITER. Together with a strong effort on modeling, diagnostics and control, these researchers want to develop advanced concepts and scenarios for the even more intense conditions in DEMO fusion power plants beyond ITER.
Magnum-PSI, DIFFER's unique laboratory setup to investigate materials behaviour under the extreme conditions in future fusion power plants. Left: overview (with connection to the Ion Beam Facility bottom right); Right: close-up of plasma exposure of tungsten monoblocks for the ITER reactor.
Active energy processes
"In all energy research, you will find that no single scientific discipline is enough to solve the issues. That is why DIFFER takes a multidisciplinary, programmatic approach to all our research themes", explains Richard van de Sanden. "Our close links to academic and industrial partners bring together all the actors in the innovation chain, from fundamental and applied research to smaller enterprises and larger industries." Prime examples of these connections are the institute's four public-private programs with major industrial partners, and continous dialogue with industry and enterprises for optimum transfer of knowledge and expertise.
"Our unique niche is to combine situ, operando studies with multiscale modeling and active control. We look at an energy process while it is running, from the atomic to the device scale. That is how you learn how the system really behaves and how to optimize its performance." To this end, DIFFER brings together experts from chemistry, physics, materials science and engineering; experimenters working closely together with theoreticians and modellers. "We find this provides a wealth of ideas and accelerates progress."
Left: modeling to understand photoelectrochemical cells. Right: in situ, operando materials research with DIFFER's Ion Beam Facility.
DIFFER will further strengthen its multidisciplinary approach to fusion energy and solar fuels via its newly set-up Ion Beam Facility and Center for Computational Energy Research, a partnership with TU/e. These will enable studies of materials and processes in active energy devices on a variety of length and time scales, such as in situ, operando studies of plasma-materials-interactions at the exhaust wall of future fusion reactors, or atomic-to-device scale modeling of the processes in photoelectrochemical cells.
In addition to providing valuable insights in DIFFER's Solar Fuels and Fusion Energy themes, this multidisciplinary approach will also be used in an exploratory program on other technologies for sustainable energy storage and power generation. For instance, the institute will target advanced batteries or materials under extreme conditions in future GenIV power plants.
Agenda setting and network building
DIFFER’s leading position in Dutch energy research is matched by our strong ties to (inter)national research collaborations and agendas. Nationally, this includes connections to major initiatives such as the Dutch Top Sectors on Energy, Chemistry and High Tech Systems & Materials and the Energy Transition Route in the National Science Agenda. Internationally, DIFFER enables the participation of Dutch researchers to the Horizon2020 programme EUROfusion. As NWO’s premier strategic instrument on energy research, DIFFER will continue to connect the various disciplines and actors in energy research and build a cohesive community for fundamental energy research.
Left: Solar Fuels Workshop on Renewable Energy Driven Chemistry, April 2017. Right: cover of the Energy transition route in the National Science Agenda.
"I am convinced that DIFFER's strategy places us in an excellent position to make a real difference in fundamental energy research. Our well established focus on Fusion Energy and Solar Fuels, a network of excellent partners in research and industry,our new research facilities and our broader explorative program in energy research will result in major contributions to fulfilling future energy needs. With a national leading and coordinating role, DIFFER will bring the Netherlands to the forefront in the international energy research arena."