Functional Material Systems

New materials and procedures for lightweight construction, energy and environmental protection

Gettyimages-vetta-sava Alexandru

Photo: Getty Images/Vetta/Sava Alexandru

Materials form the basis of practically every technology – starting with products from the simple ceramic coffee cup to highly-complex high-tech devices such as computers, cars and aircraft. Sophisticated and improved materials are always needed in order to develop or redevelop future technologies. The Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht works on such innovative materials: its scientists are researching a new generation of lightweight construction materials for cars and aircraft, optimised membranes for separating liquids or gases, and highly-efficient concepts for generating and storing hydrogen, a promising energy carrier of the future.

New materials can help to protect resources and the climate. The lighter a car, the less fuel it consumes – one of the important measures needed in order to be able to reach the two-degree target agreed at the Paris Climate Summit.

Light, sturdy and economical

Car chassis are currently mainly made from steel, and the fuselage and wings of aircraft of aluminium. HZG experts are researching how to replace part of these materials with a much lighter material – magnesium. To make this light metal fit for use, they are developing and testing new alloys and optimised manufacturing procedures. Also important are new joining techniques that can be used to connect a wide range of materials to larger components, such as a vehicle body. The aim: ultra-light structural materials, which are simultaneously strong, durable and economical.

Sophisticated functions

In addition, there is a focus on materials that can carry out occasionally intelligent functions suited to the situation: membranes made from polymers that work as molecular sieves and can clean germ-infested drinking water, for example, or filter out CO2 from bio-gas; sophisticated nano-materials that monitor the mechanical stresses in an aircraft fuselage or that heal themselves should fractures form. Or tanks for climateneutral cars that can safely and efficiently store regenerated hydrogen.


From theory via experiment to innovation

When innovations arise from fundamental research, and usable patents are derived from ideas, this means that the greatest ambition of the researchers at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht has been achieved: to make their scientific knowledge usable in practical solutions. This is why they work regularly with companies from industry, such as aircraft manufacturers. After ten years of scientific research, the patent for a Geesthacht titanium alloy really took off and it is now used in aircraft engines due to its ultra-light weight.

Initially, scientists theoretically simulate new procedures and materials.

The next step involves model experiments and test series. Here the Helmholtz experts have modern equipment to produce samples for their experiments, including production plants in which innovative materials and components can be produced as prototypes – at close to a one-to-one industrial scale. These include, for example, large sheets of lightweight magnesium that can later be used in car construction to save weight.

To gain the deepest possible understanding, scientists examine new materials and components using today’s most sensitive analytical methods – including the use of radiation from PETRA III, one of the world’s strongest sources of X-rays, and the neutrons from FRM II, one of the most powerful research reactors in Europe. These are one-off procedures provided to external users from science and industry by the Geesthacht researchers.

Crucial processes in the production of new materials, and their changes during use, can thus be tracked in microscopic detail, sometimes down to the scale of atoms and molecules. This accurate characterisation of new materials is useful to scientists and industry because it reveals processes that would otherwise remain hidden.