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In 2006 the GKSS Research Centre Geesthacht GmbH has celebrated its 50th anniversary.

As it looks back from the beginning of the 21st century, GKSS can take stock of 50 years of highly successful history — half a century in which Germany"s first major research establishment has developed into a modern, interdisciplinary scientific institution within the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centres.

About 800 employees working at the twin locations of Geesthacht and Teltow, near Berlin, are involved in a variety of national and international projects designed to provide answers to the pressing problems of our time, especially with regard to future energy supplies and the conservation of natural resources. In line with our maxim that “knowledge generates utility”, they not only extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge but also help turn this into a host of concrete applications for the present and future. Today scientific research at GKSS is concentrated on two pioneering and highly applied fields of activity: coastal research and materials research.

Such an occasion also provides a welcome opportunity to take a look at the core areas of research at GKSS and review the scientific achievements of the past five decades.


The Early Days of the Gesellschaft für Kernenergieverwertung in Schiffbau und Schifffahrt (GKSS)

The NS OTTO HAHN off Cape Town

Photo: Hereon

GKSS was founded on 18th April 1956 as the Gesellschaft für Kernenergieverwertung in Schiffbau und Schiffahrt GmbH (GKSS — Society for the Utilisation of Atomic Energy in Shipbuilding and Shipping Ltd.) in Krümmel, Geesthacht. On the strength of the construction of the FRG-1 research reactor at Geesthacht and the subsequent research carried out by GKSS into the uses of atomic energy for merchant shipping, a contract was awarded to Kiel shipbuilders Howaldtswerke AG at the end of November 1961 to construct a nuclear-powered ore freighter.

Two years later, the NS OTTO HAHN was launched. Following successful completion of a number of sea trials using conventional marine engines, the vessel undertook its first voyage under nuclear power — and was thus officially commissioned — on 11th October 1968.

By the mid-1970s, studies showed that it was not possible to operate nuclear-powered freighters in an economically efficient manner. Following this re-evaluation of the potential of nuclear-powered shipping, the NS OTTO HAHN was finally decommissioned in February 1979 after 10 years of trouble-free operation.

From Nuclear-Powered Shipping to Neutrons for Scientific Research

The establishment in 1974 of "Reactor Safety" as an independent research area at GKSS marked the transition from an initial focus on marine applications of nuclear power to the wider field of research into nuclear reactor safety issues. Here the primary aim was to carry out a range of theoretical and practical work as part of the reactor safety programme of the German government. Aware of the growing importance of this topic, GKSS also took the decision to get involved in diverse international projects in this field.

Soon afterwards, GKSS commenced construction of an irradiation facility to test samples of steel intended for use in pressure vessels. The first such tests were carried out in 1979. In the following years, this area of activity underwent major expansion and was extended to cover the entire field of materials research. On the basis of experimental work with a cold neutron source — commenced in the mid-1980s — to investigate structural properties, the field of materials research continued to develop in scope. This was accompanied by an increasingly strong focus on the development of testing and analysis methods to investigate the microstructure of materials.

Over the last two decades, such investigations have given rise to more and more fields of research, including today"s neutron-based research into structural properties, which GKSS carries out not only at our Geesthacht location but also at the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Neutron Research Facility at the Garching campus near Munich. Similarly, GKSS scientists also use synchrotron radiation at the DESY Research Centre in Hamburg to carry out structural analyses of an extremely wide range of materials.

With the help of neutrons and protons, materials scientists can today investigate metallic components and biological membranes without damaging the original samples.

New Perspectives with New Materials and Processes

Ever since the oil crisis of the 1970s, the industrial nations have intensified efforts to reduce their energy requirements. The use of lightweight body and engine components is one way of cutting the fuel consumption of cars and aircraft.

Since the 1990s, materials research at GKSS has concentrated on developing and testing materials that are especially lightweight or have special functions. The prime aim here is to ensure a continuous growth in mobility whilst also conserving energy resources and the world"s reserves of metals. Such a task involves not only the microscopic and macroscopic characterisation of materials but also the use of special production and processing methods — frequently developed in cooperation with industry — that are tailored to specific materials.

This research is designed to ascertain and predict how materials behave when used and focuses on the following areas: the investigation of fractures in materials and components, the study of fatigue and corrosion damage at the macromolecular level, and most importantly the increased use of computer-based modelling as a major tool of structural analysis.

Since the mid-1980s, GKSS scientists have been investigating titanium aluminide, an alloy of the metals titanium and aluminium. This material is extremely resistant to heat and provides high strength and stability in components with a low weight. Products made of such lightweight materials help save energy and improve efficiency.

At the same time, special processes and technologies to produce such materials are also developed in Geesthacht. In 1994, for example, the PIGA atomising plant for producing metallic powders went into operation. The successful use of titanium aluminide, e.g. in turbochargers and aircraft turbines, shows its great industrial potential. In addition, GKSS has developed processes to produce fine medical components using atomised titanium alloys together with injection-moulding techniques. These include artificial cardiac valves and bone screws for stabilising broken vertebrae.

Indeed a significant part of the work in the field of materials science concerns the development of new processing methods. For example, GKSS has played a key role in the further development of friction-stir welding. In this process, a rotating pin is used to heat, mix together and thereby permanently bond two metal parts. It is especially suitable for aluminium alloys.

Likewise laser welding — another process further developed by GKSS scientists — makes it possible to join lightweight materials without the use of rivets, thus further reducing weight and costs and thereby increasing the economical viability of such materials. In this way the use of products made of magnesium and titanium aluminide can help save energy and improve efficiency.

Magnesium and Hydrogen — Visions for the Future

The figure shows typical spark discharges on the surface of a magnesium part during its coating in an electrolyte solution.

Laboratory equipment for the plasma-electrolytic oxidation of magnesium surfaces. The illustration shows the characteristic spark discharges on the surface of a magnesium component during coating in an electrolyte solution Photo: Hereon/ C. Geisler

With the lowest density of all the metals used for structural components, magnesium is predestined to play a key role in the future of lightweight engineering. At present G KSS is expanding its Magnesium Innovation Centre ("MagIC"), where all research activities in the field of magnesium technology are to be gathered as of the end of 2006.
As magnesium is biodegradable in the body, it also faces a bright future in the field of medical technology. Potential applications here include bone screws that do not have to be surgically removed after having served their purpose, since they are dissolved and biodegraded by the human body over an extended period of time.

At the same time GKSS scientists have developed magnesium alloys that store hydrogen effectively. Other areas of GKSS are likewise highly active in pushing forward the field of hydrogen technology. At the Institute of Polymer Research, for example, GKSS staff are busy developing membranes for use in fuel cells.

From Membranes for Humans and the Environment to Regenerative Medicine

Polyimide membrane for hydrogen separation.

Polyimide membrane for hydrogen separation. Photo: Hereon

Among the first industrially applied research projects at GKSS was a process developed in the 1980s for recycling petrol vapour using special membranes. The use of this innovative separation process reduces the emission of poisonous gases by 90 per cent every time a vehicle refuels. Similar methods were also used to clean up the earth from contaminated landfill sites and enhance dialysis machines for kidney patients.

Since 1999, polymer research has also been conducted at our location in Teltow, near Berlin. The main thrust of activities here is dedicated to the development of materials for use in the field of regenerative medicine. This area of research is concerned with the development of biomaterials capable of supporting the regeneration of cells, tissue and organs. In this way scientists hope to develop new methods to treat diseases and injuries for which there is still little prospect of a cure today.

For example, GKSS research in the field of regenerative medicine has prepared the ground for techniques to provide faster and more effective help for patients with organ failure or severe burns. Such developments include polymers on which cells of the appropriate tissue can grow.

 In 5 pictures the temporarily fixed form (the rod) retracts into the original form (the spiral) in the magnetic field of a ring inductor.

Photo: Hereon

On the strength of successful research in the field of shape-memory polymers, a Centre of Biomaterial Development is to be opened in Teltow this year. These "intelligent" thermoplastics can be made to change their shape through the application of an external stimulus such as a heat, magnetism or UV radiation. Used as a suturing material, for example, they can knot themselves and exert a predefined tension along the edge of a wound.

From Seawater Desalination to GUSI and the Management of Coastal Zones

From the early 1970s onwards, the desalination of seawater became a major research field at G KSS. This led to the development of a variety of pilot systems for producing drinking water, by means of osmosis, from saltwater and brackish water. On account of the key role played by the membranes in these systems, Geesthacht attached increasing importance from the end of the 1970s onwards to research into specific membrane types made of different basic materials. Today the development of membranes — which have potential uses in environmental and, latterly, medical applications — continues to play a major role at GKSS and shapes numerous projects at both the Institute of Polymer Research and the Institute of Materials Research.

The second major theme of research at GKSS in the 1970s was that of marine technology, with a focus on the twin topics of offshore and underwater engineering. This research was primarily motivated by an increasing awareness of the decline in the world"s reserves of raw materials and fossil fuels, which in turn led to an increased interest in the exploitation of natural resources located in and under the sea.

Established in 1976, the first GKSS research programme in the field of marine technology was set up in response to the growing realisation that the future of marine engineering lay in the exploitation of deepwater oil and gas fields using offshore platforms and — at increasing production depths — underwater drilling facilities operating independently of the surface.

divers and submersible in the main test chamber

GUSI: divers and submersible in the main test chamber Photo: Hereon

At the end of the 1970s, GKSS initiated a programme of deep-sea diving experiments and pressure chamber tests in conjunction with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). In the mid-1980s, a demonstration at the Geesthacht Underwater Simulation Facility (GUSI) showed for first time ever that divers can work safely and effectively at a depth of 600 metres. Subsequent research in this area led in particular to the development of different underwater welding methods as well as advances in diving medicine.

GKSS has been involved in environmental research since 1975. Although activities initially focused on the analysis of trace elements, the scope of research widened from the mid-1980s onwards to include other environmental as well as climate-related topics. From the end of the 1990s, the combination of activities in the field of environmental and climate research resulted in an increasingly strong focus on the coastal environment as such, which culminated in a multidisciplinary approach to the management of coastal zones and the establishment of an Institute of Coastal Research.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Coastal Environments

Coastal research at GKSS addresses the problems caused by the increasing habitation and industrialisation of coastal regions worldwide — around half the world"s population now live on or near coasts. Coastal regions and their inhabitants are not only prey to natural dangers such as storm tides and tsunamis; they also are at risk from anthropogenic changes, including rising sea levels, flooding caused by hydraulic engineering, and pollution.

The "Environmental Research" programme, which was established in 1974 and included a regional focus on estuaries such as those of the Elbe and Weser, already had strong links to coasts. For example, GKSS developed a range of automatic systems to monitor heavy metals in estuarial and coastal waters, including the META I measurement platform, which was anchored in the water.

In 1983, GKSS acquired the research vessel LUDWIG PRANDTL, which has a very small draught and is therefore particularly suitable for work in shallow coastal waters. The Institute of Coastal Research continues to investigate the impact that long-lived and toxic trace elements such as mercury have on the ecosystem. GKSS researchers from Geesthacht also cooperate very closely with the Bremerhaven-based Alfred Wegener Institute of Polar and Marine Research on the PACES programme of the Helmholtz Association.

Environmental research at GKSS has also focused on the investigation of various atmospheric processes. Indeed, GKSS played an important role in the development of the MERIS spectrometer, which was sent into orbit on board the earth observation satellite ENVISAT in 2002 by the European Space Agency (ESA). Thanks to this spectrometer, it is possible to monitor materials in the sea and coastal waters from space.

In 2002, GKSS also started development of the “FerryBox” — a measuring system for use on board ferries — which formed part of an EU project. Installed in a ship"s hull, this device offers a cheap and automatic method of taking periodic water samples, which are then immediately analysed on the basis of specific parameters. In combination with the data collected by ENVISAT, this makes it possible to gain a more precise picture of the distribution of nutrients in the sea.

Data collected with a variety of radar systems has enabled coastal researchers to develop a host of additional applications in recent years. For example, measurements and calculations of wave heights carried out by GKSS scientists will ultimately lead to an increase in shipping safety. Likewise, radar technology is used to investigate currents in coastal waters; and by using the WiSAR measurement method, a GKSS development, it is even possible to look into the eye of a hurricane.

GKSS researchers in Geesthacht also played a key role in the development of the scientific evaluation method that will be used to analyse the radar data supplied by the NASA satellite CloudSat, which was launched last month.

With regard to the much discussed issue of climate change, GKSS researchers are especially concerned with how this global development will impact coastal regions. The use of models and scenario calculations is one way of predicting changes to our climate. For example, engineers already rely on calculations of the possible height of storm tides when designing embankments and flood defences.

Training and Jobs at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geestahcht

The Geesthacht Innovation and Technology Centre (GITZ) was established on the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon site in 1999. The aim of GITZ is to facilitate a commercial exploitation of the region"s research and technology potential, translate scientific discoveries into new products and services, and thus create high-quality jobs.

The promotion of up-and-coming scientists is crucial for the future of research. Here our school laboratory "Quantum Leap" offers pupils an opportunity to experience science in action.

The Helmholtz-Zentrum Geestahcht is an important employer in the region. At present we have 35 trainees; and with over 60 doctoral students, we are also playing our part in promoting the next generation of scientists.
Each year, around 250 guest researchers from around the world benefit from our scientific and technical infrastructure.