Energy research performed at the Paul Scherrer Institute is focused on processes that can be used in sustainable and safe technologies for the supply of energy with - ideally - zero CO2 emission. The main emphasis is on the development of processes for the utilization of renewable energy sources, low-emission conversion of energy and the safe application of nuclear energy. These activities are supplemented by analyses giving a comprehensive assessment of energy systems.
PSI is also active in research on the environment, studying the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the processes that take place within it.
Working today on the energy supply of tomorrow: The ESI Platform paves the way for promising solutions to become industrial applications. (Photo: Scanderbeg Sauer Photography)
Scientists at PSI are working on processes for producing propellants or fuels with overall zero CO2 emission during the complete fuel cycle. One method of doing this is to use biomass - such as wood, manure or sewage sludge. Researchers at PSI are developing processes with which fuels such as Synthetic Natural Gas can be generated from biomass, and are working on scaling up these methods for industrial application. The use of biomass is CO2-neutral because the CO2 that is produced when fuel is burned is absorbed back into newly planted biomass.
Efficient conversion of energy sources into useful energy
The efficiency of an energy system as a whole can be increased through the use of storage media - especially when the energy system contains relatively high levels of sustainable primary energy sources, such as wind and sun, which are not always available.
The main focus of the PSI lies in the characterization and development of materials, especially for lithium-ion batteries. These will play a major part in future hybrid, electric and fuel-cell-driven vehicles, for which high energy and power densities are crucial.
The fuel cell is a device that converts hydrogen and oxygen to electricity and in the process generates water as its only waste product. Its major advantage is its high degree of efficiency, i.e. the energy content of the hydrogen can be converted to electricity with yields of 40% to 60%. On average, this is three times higher than the efficiency of a combustion engine, which means a three times lower energy consumption.
Safe use of nuclear energy
An important topic of energy research at the PSI is the safe use of nuclear energy. A key focus here is on further improving our understanding of the processes in existing and future nuclear power plants, to help ensure that they are operating safely. Scientists at PSI are thus studying the integral processes occurring during the operation of a reactor, analysing the detailed processes in the fuel rods, looking at patterns of water flow in the circuit and researching the changes in materials exposed to high levels of radiation over a long period in a nuclear plant. These studies are carried out not only in large experiments, but also increasingly using computer simulation.
Safe disposal of radioactive waste
A further aspect of the use of nuclear energy studied at PSI is the safe disposal of radioactive waste. The aim of research in this field is to determine how well suited different geological formations are to the safe storage of radioactive waste over long periods of time. Scientists here are occupied both with general aspects and also with the study of specifically Swiss conditions.
Comprehensive assessment of energy systems
In addition to studies on individual energy technologies, scientists at PSI are devoting their attention to the comprehensive overview and comparison of nuclear, fossil and renewable energy systems. For example, they are analysing the structures and impacts of national and international energy systems in order to better understand the interplay between energy, industry, the environment and technology, and they are also looking at different options for energy supply. The indicators obtained from these studies - among numerous aspects - are intended to provide support for the energy utilities, governments and non-government organizations in their decision-making processes, e.g. when it is a question of finding the right energy mix for the future. Further topics are safety analysis and the study of the influence of human action within the energy system.
Impact of energy use on the atmosphere and climate
Research on the environment at PSI is primarily concerned with the composition of the atmosphere and the processes that determine this composition. For example, the atmosphere in the Alps (on the Jungfraujoch) is being studied with particular emphasis on investigating human influence on the composition of the atmosphere. A further example is the study of ice cores from different regions of the world, with which the atmospheric composition can be determined over periods stretching a long way back in time – information that permits some major conclusions to be drawn with regard to climatic developments in the past. A third key area of focus is the occurrence of particulate matter in the atmosphere, whose threshold values are being repeatedly exceeded, especially during the winter months.