As part of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain, it is an institution of the Swiss federation. For most of the period since its foundation in 1880, it concentrated on classical materials testing. Since the late 1980s it has developed into a modern research and development institute.
According to its vision – Materials and technologies for a sustainable future – Empa aims at developing solutions for current problems facing industry and society in areas such as energy, the environment, mobility, health and safety. Research is concentrated in five Research Focus Areas: “Nanostructured Materials,” “Sustainable Built Environment,” “Materials for Health and Performance,” “Natural Resources and Pollutants,” and “Materials for Energy Technologies.”
Empa’s annual budget in 2010 amounted to 97 million Swiss francs of Federal funding and 50 million Swiss francs of third party means, of which 38 million Swiss francs came from research grants and 12 million Swiss francs from services.
The strategy shift from a materials testing to a research institute has been increasingly apparent since 2001: the number of scientific publications increased from 67 in 2001 to more than 500 in 2010. The number of projects financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) increased from 5 in 2001 to 91 in the same period. External funding has also grown from 33.8 million Swiss francs in 2000 to around 50 million Swiss francs (2010). Empa is currently involved in more than 50 projects funded under the EU framework programs.
Applied research and development in the institute often unfold in close collaboration with partners from industry. Empa embraces a multidisciplinary approach – scientists and engineers from a wide range of disciplines work side by side on most projects.
The Empa also provides support to both of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, supports teaching in universities and universities of applied sciences (UAS) and is active in organizing scientific conferences and advanced training courses through the Empa Academy. Conferences, lecture series, seminars and courses are aimed at scientists, professionals from industry and the private-sector, and also the general public, for example, through the “Science Aperitifs” events.
Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) research articles from Innovation Toronto
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Can thermal solar energy be stored until wintertime? Yes, this is possible, using a cheap material like sodium lye. Within a European research consortium Empa scientists and their colleagues have spent four years studying this question by pitting three different techniques against each other.
We are still a far cry from a + supply: in 2014, 71 percent of all privately-owned apartments and houses in Switzerland were heated with fossil fuels, and 60 percent of the hot water consumed in private households is generated in this way. In other words, a considerable amount of fossil energy could be saved if we were able to store heat from sunny summer days until wintertime and retrieve it at the flick of a switch. Is there a way to do this? It certainly looks like it. Since autumn of 2016, following several years of research, Empa has a plant on a lab scale in operation that works reliably and is able to store heat in the long term. But the road to get there was long and winding.
The theory behind this kind of heat storage is fairly straightforward: if you pour water into a beaker containing solid or concentrated sodium hydroxide (NaOH), the mixture heats up. The dilution is exothermic: chemical energy is released in the form of heat. Moreover, sodium hydroxide solution is highly hygroscopic and able to absorb water vapor. The condensation heat obtained as a result warms up the sodium hydroxide solution even more.
Summer heat in a storage tank
The other way round is also possible: if we feed energy into a dilute sodium hydroxide solution in the form of heat, the water evaporates; the sodium hydroxide solution will get more concentrated and thus stores the supplied energy. This solution can be kept for months and even years, or transported in tanks. If it comes into contact with water (vapor) again, the stored heat is re-released.
So much for the theory, anyway. But could the beaker experiment be replicated on a scale capable of storing enough energy for a single-family household? Empa researchers Robert Weber and Benjamin Fumey rolled up their sleeves and got down to work. They used an insulated sea container as an experimental laboratory on Empa’s campus in Dübendorf – a safety precaution as concentrated sodium hydroxide solution is highly corrosive. If the system were to spring a leak, it would be preferable for the aggressive liquid to slosh through the container instead of Empa’s laboratory building.
Unfortunately, the so-called COMTES prototype didn’t work as anticipated. The researchers had opted for a falling film evaporator – a system used in the food industry to condense orange juice into a concentrate, for instance. Instead of flowing correctly around the heat exchanger, however, the thick sodium hydroxide solution formed large drops. It absorbed too little water vapor and the amount of heat that was transferred remained too low.
Then Fumey had a brainwave: the viscous storage medium should trickle along a pipe in a spiral, absorb water vapor on the way and transfer the generated heat to the pipe. The reverse – charging the medium – should also be possible using the same technique, only the other way round. It worked. And the best thing about it: spiral-shaped heat exchangers are already available ex stock – heat exchangers from flow water heaters.
Fumey then optimized the lab system further: which fluctuations in NaOH concentration are optimal for efficiency? Which temperatures should the inflowing and outflowing water have? Water vapor at a temperature of five to ten degrees is required to drain the store. This water vapor can be produced with heat from a geothermal probe, for instance. In the process, 50-percent sodium hydroxide solution runs down the outside of the spiral heat exchanger pipe and is thinned to 30 percent in the steam atmosphere. The water inside the pipe heats up to around 50 degrees Celsius – which makes it just the ticket for floor heating.
“Charged” sodium hydroxide
While replenishing the store, the 30-percent, “discharged” sodium hydroxide solution trickles downwards around the spiral pipe. Inside the pipe flows 60-degree hot water, which can be produced by a solar collector, for instance. The water from the sodium hydroxide solution evaporates; the water vapor is removed and condensed. The condensation heat is conducted into a geothermal probe, where it is stored. The sodium hydroxide solution that leaves the heat exchanger after charging is concentrated to 50 percent again, i.e. “charged” with thermal energy.
“This method enables solar energy to be stored in the form of chemical energy from the summer until the wintertime,” says Fumey. “And that’s not all: the stored heat can also be transported elsewhere in the form of concentrated sodium hydroxide solution, which makes it flexible to use.” The search for industrial partners to help build a compact household system on the basis of the Empa lab model has now begun. The next prototype of the sodium hydroxide storage system could then be used in NEST, for example.
Learn more: Summer heat for the winter
High-performance lithium ion batteries face a major problem: Lithium will eventually start to run out as batteries are deployed in electric cars and stationary storage units. Researchers from Empa and ETH Zurich have now discovered an alternative: the “fool’s gold battery”. It consists of iron, sulfur, sodium and magnesium – all elements that are in plentiful supply. This means that giant storage batteries could be built on the cheap and used stationary in buildings or next to power plants, for instance.
There is an urgent need to search for low-priced batteries to store electricity. Intermittency of green electricity is affecting the power grids, calling for stationary storage units to be connected into a smart grid. Electric cars are of increasing popularity, but are still too expensive. Efficient lithium ion batteries we know are not suitable for large-scale stationary storage of electricity; they are just too expensive and precious lithium is too scarce. A cheap alternative is called for – a battery made of inexpensive ingredients that are highly abundant. But electrochemistry is a tricky business: Not everything that’s cheap can be used to make a battery.