German Future Prize 2016: Fascinating carbon concrete | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 30.11.2016
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German Future Prize 2016: Fascinating carbon concrete

An alternative to steel enforced concrete has taken out the German Future Prize 2016. Edging out the inventions of pinpointed laser light and efficient motors.

German President Joachim Gauck awarded the three brains behind carbon concrete the German Future Prize for innovation on Wednesday. It is endowed with 250,000 euros ($264,000). 

Worldwide, the building industry uses around 160 million tones of steel each year to reinforce concrete. In future, the advances made by winners Peter Offermann, Manfred Curbach and Chokri Cherif, the three Technical University of Dresden researchers behind the invention, could replace the use of steel in construction work for good. 

Team 1: The winners are… 

Steel enforced concrete is great for construction: it guarantees fire safety, durability and security. However, it also has some weaknesses. One very big one: the steel reinforcement that's in the center of the concrete structure can corrode if water manages to seep in.

That's one of the reasons that many bridges from the 1960s and 70s are now losing stability and will have to be replaced in the coming years. Weather, and the impact of heavier and more trucks than what they were built for, have left their toll on the structures.

Watch video 04:57

Building with textile concrete

Three professors from the Technical University Dresden in the eastern German state of Saxony have invented carbon concrete as an alternative to steel enforced concrete. Instead of the traditional iron grates, the concrete contains carbon fibers. Those fibers are even more durable than steel and don't corrode. Therefore, it is possible to built much slimmer structures that will last much longer.

The inventors are all from the same university, but they come from very different institutes. Manfred Curbach is the head of the Institute for Concrete Construction (Institut für Massivbau). Chokri Cherif heads the Institute for Textile High Performance Materials (Institut für Textilmaschinen und textile Hochleistungswerkstofftechnik). And his colleague Peter Offermann, though retired from the institute, remains active as a researcher.

Team 2: Motor cylinder with no friction

Every combustion engine generates friction - everywhere where metal faces metal. This is the case inside the cylinder, for example, where the piston moves up and down, or at the crankshaft.

Traditionally, one tries to reduce the friction with lubricants. This extends the lifespan of the engine. Newer, additional, methods of making the inside of cylinders smoother include the use of aluminum-silicon-alloy construction parts. They generate less friction but need to be solidified with heavier components made out of cast iron.

Manuel Michel, Patrick Izquierdo and Bernd Zapf (photo: Ansgar Pudenz)

Manuel Michel, Patrick Izquierdo and Bernd Zapf make better motors with a nano-coating

But there's an even better and easier way to deal with friction - Patrick Izquierdo and Manuel Michel, engineers at car manufacturer Daimler in Ulm, and Bernd Zapf from the machine factory Heller Brothers in Nürtingen have proven that. They invented a coating called Nanoslide. The coating is about a tenth of a millimeter strong and consists of tiny nanoscale particles, which cover the surface of the engine cylinder and the piston.

Using the coating, the engineers managed to reduce the energy losses through friction by about half. This means that the fuel consumption of a motor decreases by about three percent.

Another advantage: motors don't need additional parts made of special alloys and can therefore be built lighter and smaller. This is important for lightweight car designs - for example for hybrid vehicles.

Team 3: Lasers as car headlights - focusing on the road

To prevent accidents, drivers must be able to see very well even when it's dark outside. That's what the inventors Carsten Setzer from Osram's department of car lights and Christian Amann from the Bavarian car producer BMW's department of light systems used as their jump-off point.

They worked to find a strongly focused laser light, which they wanted to brighten the road so well that drivers' night vision was almost as good as what they could see in daylight. At the same time, turning on your brights shouldn't blind other drivers.

That seems to be a contradiction, since laser light is highly focused light of just one specific wavelength. Daylight is exactly the opposite: widely spread light with a wide wavelength spectrum.

Carsten Setzer and Christian Amann (photo: Ansgar Pudenz)

Carsten Setzer and Christian Amann make sure we can see better when driving at night

Setzer's and Amann's solution: They pointed the laser source onto a special piece of ceramic, which transformed part of the blue light into yellow light. By mixing the remaining blue and the new yellow light, they managed to generate a white light point almost as well focused as the original laser beam.

The high beam laser headlights are already standard in some series vehicles. The beam reaches about 600 meters far - that's almost half a mile. It is substituting a regular LED low beam headlight which has a reach of about 300 eters.

A special high-beam assistant makes sure that oncoming cars or cars driving ahead will be faded out of the beam. Therefore the drivers won't be blinded and dazzled.


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