news / 2011-10-27

Membrane technologies for climate protection

Helmholtz Association increases research on gas separation

Gas separation membrane: A 100 to 200 nanometre-thick function layer is applied to a porous metal substrate that only allows CO2 molecules to pass through it. When the flue gas flows past, the carbon dioxide is captured. ©RUB


During the next few decades, the energy supply will continue to be largely based on fossil fuels. For this reason, researchers want to develop new processes that simply and cheaply capture the greenhouse gases caused during the combustion process – including using membranes. With the topic “Gas separation processes for CO2-free fossil-fuelled power plants”, the Helmholtz Association is increasing research in this area. Four Helmholtz centres and four universities are jointly driving forward the development of innovative membrane technologies for capturing CO2.


The Helmholtz Association is funding the project until 2014 to the tune of 3.5 million euros a year, while the partners are investing an equal amount. The topic can then be continued as part of the Helmholtz research programme. “If we want to achieve the climate goals, we must capture greenhouse gases from fossil-fired power plants without considerably reducing their efficiency. The Helmholtz MEM-BRAIN alliance has shown that membrane technologies offer this potential. With the new portfolio topic, we are therefore focussing on the further development of gas separation processes with innovative polymer or ceramic membranes,” explains Professor Jürgen Mlynek, President of the Helmholtz Association.


The “Gas separation membranes for CO2-free fossil-fired power plant” project is partnered by Research Centre Jülich, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research, Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie GmbH, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, RWTH Aachen, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, the University of Twente and Universidad Politecnica de Valencia. In particular, the research partners want to clarify issues relating to materials research and further develop membrane components in order to optimise the production of high-performance membranes. In addition, scenarios are being produced for a cost-effective and sensible integration of the separation membranes into power plants. In ten to twelve years, this should enable powerful membrane systems to be available for various capturing technologies.

Capturing and storing CO2 molecules

For example, the researchers at the Jülich Institute of Energy and Climate Research are producing membranes by applying several ceramic function layers to a metallic substrate. This enables CO2 molecules to adhere to or pass through the membrane. Attached to the inside of the tubes through which the flue gas flows, the membrane only allows CO2 molecules to pass through to the outside where they are liquefied and can be removed. The scientists are now working on improving the selectivity of the membranes for CO2 and are researching applications at a larger scale.


The Helmholtz Association is the largest scientific organisation in Germany. A total of 31,000 employees work in its 17 scientific technology- and biomedicine-based research centres. The annual budget of the association amounts to more than 3.3 billion euros. 70 per cent of this is paid for by the German government and the federal states at a ratio of 90:10. 30 per cent of the overall budget is acquired by the centres themselves in the form of third-party funding. The work of the centres follows in the tradition of the great German naturalist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894).

Groundbreaking ceremony for new membrane centre

Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Rachel (second from the right) and member of the Research Centre’s Executive Board, Professor Harald Bolt, (second from the left) join Dr. Hans Peter Buchkremer (left) and Dr. Wilhelm A. Meulenberg (right) at the initial groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the new membrane centre. Source: Research Centre Jülich

Compared with conventional capturing processes, high-temperature membranes have the advantage that considerably smaller efficiency losses are to be expected than, for example, with chemical gas scrubbing. That makes them particularly interesting for applications in power plants.

In order to decisively drive forward research on this technology, the so-called Membrane Centre, where researchers will be able to develop new kinds of components, is being built in the grounds of Research Centre Jülich. The membrane centre will form part of the Institute for Energy and Climate Research – Materials Synthesis and Processing (IEK-1).


In November 2011, Thomas Rachel, who is Parliamentary State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, joined acting Institute Director Dr. Hans Peter Buchkremer and Professor Harald Bolt, who is an Executive Board Member at Research Centre Jülich, to launch the pioneering construction project. This is scheduled to be completed at the beginning of 2013.


Around 16 million euros are being invested in the building and equipment used inside. Most of this funding originally stems from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and is being allocated to the research centre as part of the Helmholtz Association’s development investment programme.

The building, which will provide roughly 1,550 square metres of usable space, will also be home to the newly founded Institut für Klimaforschung - Grundlagen der Elektrochemie (IEK-9). This will enable the technologically oriented research and development work at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research to be supported and secured with basic research. In particular, the work will focus on battery and fuel cell research, electrolysis and membrane separation technologies.

Projects currently being funded