During lockdown, BRISK2 has been speaking to Work Package Leaders for their reflections on BRISK2 and the future of renewable energy. Principal Investigator for Pyrolysis, Axel Funke (pictured below), from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), shared his thoughts with us.

The importance of BRISK2

important and I have found it invaluable to get to know people I would not otherwise meet. In BRISK2, the partners collaborate and learn about what other research institutes are doing, which improves efficiency. The strong resulting network means we can carry out and follow up on meaningful research together. I think that understanding people’s work and goals can also guide future research and development proposals.

With  BRISK2’s transnational access research visits, the primary focus is sharing our facilities and expertise. At KIT, we have two rigs on offer at the moment, the first is HTL, hydrothermal liquefaction and a fast pyrolysis unit.  A benefit is that we learn as well. We learn about the visitors’ research processes and these can guide our own research. 

It is very rewarding to be able to help people with their career and their research and I enjoy reading case studies that transnational access researchers write up following a visit here. In particular, when they see economic solutions to existing solutions. For example, biomass is always regional – a plentiful biomass in one country may not be so readily available in another country with a different climate – and remembering the economic picture too, is really important. It is good to see joined up thinking.

During lockdown

Not surprisingly, our labs closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, however some experiments were able to continue. Our analytical team tried to conduct as many samples as possible during lockdown. Some PhD students were also approaching completion and the logistics helping them conclude their research were worked out. Pictured right, char collection,

Research and Early Career

I started my career as a quality control engineer in power plants and biodiesel plants and then I started my PhD in hydrothermal carbonisation. This is a very interesting process where biomass is heated in water at around 200-250 degrees Celsius. The biomass is not cooked as such, it is carbonised, producing a lignite-like material. Lignite is a soft brownish coal showing traces of plant structure and is an intermediate between bituminous coal and peat. If you apply more pressure, you obtain coal and this can be done in a vessel in about half an hour to an hour. It can be viewed as an ‘accelerated natural process’, but scientifically it is something different. Pyrolysis does this too, but with hydrothermal carbonisation you don’t need dry biomass, as it is placed in water. In fact you can work with ‘sludge’ in order to create the coal.

The next bioenergy breakthrough – science, or society?

The next breakthrough with renewable energy lies in changing policy. There is still a lot of research to be done and how biofuels processes are commercialised needs to be improved, but unless we do something about the low cost of fossil fuels versus the high cost of biofuels, we will not see change.

Coming up

I am an engineer and I like to develop design rules for biomass conversion systems. Coming up, I will be working with research organisation Helmholtz in Germany to further develop the Bioliq process chain, a second generation synthetic fuel made from biomass. We have a special unit that is almost industrial in scale and it lets us do vital work. In the meantime, KIT welcomes future BRISK2 transnational access researchers seeking to make biofuels a very real part of everyone’s future. Pictured below, bio-oil fractions after fast pyrolysis at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany.