With the new knowledge obtained, the institutions of the ETH Domain provide the basis for political discussions and solutions to deal with the pressing problems of our times. Innovative technologies, and their implementation in products, procedures and services, ensure that Switzerland remains globally competitive despite the strength of the Swiss franc. The efficient transfer of knowledge and technology makes a decisive contribution to the welfare of our society.

Together with Leclanché, Romande Energie and the Canton of Vaud, EPFL is testing the new battery in this container. It can store up to 565 kWh of electricity generated by the photovoltaic system on campus.

The Federal Government’s Energy Strategy 2050 plans to increase the production of solar electricity in future. But when the sun shines, there may be times of overproduction, then the feeding into the grid has to be stopped, valuable energy is lost. To solve this problem, a large white container has been installed on the campus of EPFL since August 2015, which has quite a lot going on inside: 9,000 Lithium-ion-Titanate cells that form a gigantic battery of 0.565 MWh energy capacity and almost 1 MW peak power. The installation was developed and built by the battery manufacturer Leclanché, which is based in Yverdon-les-Bains.

“The special feature of this battery is that it has a very long lifetime”, explains EPFL Professor Mario Paolone. “You can cycle it 15,000 times with high discharge rates at 100 % of depth-of-discharge without significant loss in performance, unlike the batteries in mobile phones, laptops and even those in electric vehicles.” This new product developed by the company Leclanché is a lithium-ion battery that contains titanate oxide anode instead of the conventional graphite.

Solar power in poor weather

The container can store and release up to 565 kWh of electricity. This is equivalent to the electricity produced by 2,500 sqm of solar panels in a couple of hours, or the daily consumption of about 100 households. On the EPFL campus the battery is connected to the existing solar park via the EPFL 20 kV power grid. This means the energy from the sun can be stored during times of overproduction, and then fed back into the grid again during poor weather or to cover peaks in consumption. Additionally, the battery can provide control function to the EPFL 20 kV grid like mitigating voltage fluctuations and line congestions.

This does, however, require a sophisticated control of the bat-tery and grid. The researchers at EPFL want to test this in cooperation with Leclanché and the electricity supply company of western Switzerland, Romande Energie. The Canton of Vaud is supporting the experiment with 2m CHF and the project is also integrated in the activities of the SCCER FURIES (Future Swiss Electrical Infrastructure). “Normally one tests new control techniques by using models and simulations”, Mario Paolone says. “Here on our campus we can validate control processes for this battery on a realistic scale of size since the battery is coupled with a pervasive and accurate metering system.” The energy expert is confident that the results it provides will be much more precise: “This makes the installation quite unique.”

There is enormous potential for such a brilliant solution which can efficiently store surplus solar or wind energy, to cover the peaks in consumption. Now the hope is that the close collaboration between university and industry will also enable a successful implementation in practice. “Innovation is the elixir, the key factor for Swiss industry”, said Hans Hess, president of Swissmem, on “Industry Day 2015” of ETH Zurich. On that occasion researchers presented forward-looking findings on sensor technology, robotics, systems biology and personalised medicine; among them was Robert Riener, professor at the ETH Sensory-Motor Systems Lab in Zurich.

Patients exercise with robots

With his team and the Balgrist university hospital, Robert Riener developed a robot that helps patients with neurological damage in their rehabilitation. Often the persons affected are paralysed on one side. Then by using physiotherapy and occupational therapy some of them can learn to use their arm again. The robot assists the therapist in his work. It relieves the affected arm and supports the movement of shoulder and elbow, “but only just as much as necessary”, says Robert Riener. Force sensors provide an adaptive control. And thanks to virtual reality the patients remain involved and are given direct feedback about their movements. Entering a computer game, they can collect coins under water, or feel their way through a labyrinth to go and unlock a treasure chest.

Robert Riener called his invention “ARMin”. Now known as “ArmeoPower”, it has been helping patients around the world with their training exercises in clinics and therapy centres. “We developed the product in cooperation with the firm Hocoma”, the Professor says. Since the market launch in 2011, more than 80 of the devices have been sold “with an upward trend each year”, says Lars Lünenburger, head of the core technologies division at Hocoma.

This company was founded in 2000 as a spin-off of Balgrist hospital, to bring to market the walking-aid robots that were developed there. Using this “Lokomat” system, patients who have difficulty walking after a stroke or a spinal injury are helped to learn to walk. Today Hocoma employs 150 staff. “We are the market leader in our field”, says Lars Lünenburger proudly. This is also due to the close cooperation with ETH Zurich. “For example, we have doctoral students at Hocoma who conduct research on site”, Robert Riener says, “so this resulted in an excellent teamwork which leads to new research questions and innovative approaches to solutions.” Hocoma is also the main sponsor of “Cybathlon”, a competition for robot-assisted athletes with disabilities, which ETH Zurich will carry out in October 2016, led by Robert Riener.

Patents and licences ensure that the inventions can first be commercialised by the inventors and licensees. But companies in East Asia have now started copying the exercise robots as well. Therefore the head start in technology, which comes from the collaboration with ETH Zurich, is more important than protection by patents, Lars Lünenburger says.

More knowledge about common property

“For us, the partners are not entrepreneurs”, says Christoph Hegg, deputy director of the WSL in Birmensdorf. “Our knowledge and technology transfer is geared to public authorities and society.” The intention is that the research results will support and assist the government offices as well as the citizens. “Here we are dealing with public property, such as safeguarding against natural dangers or interacting with the environment we live in, where it is not appropriate to take out patents”, Christoph Hegg explains. One example is the forest and the status report which the WSL publishes jointly with the FOEN every ten years.

The 2015 Forest Report concluded that the state of the Swiss forests is quite good. They did not have to bear the effects of any major storms in the past decade, the situation was quiet and relatively stable. “But there are threats on the horizon, which we have to address”, says Christoph Hegg. Here he is referring to climate change, among other things. If the climate change continues to warm up as expected, the composition of the tree species in the Swiss forests will change. Problems are also caused by pests brought in such as the Asian long-horned beetle, and ash dieback. To the WSL researcher it is clear that if invasive organisms continue to spread the situation may become serious at some time in the future.

Douglas firs instead of spruce?

The Forest Report will also provide a strong basis for political discussions. For example, at present there is a vigorous controversy about whether Douglas firs should be cultivated in Switzerland. This conifer that originally came from North America is robust against drought and so will probably be better suited to the future climatic conditions. However, a predominance of Douglas fir could pose a risk for animals and plants that subsist on native trees. A move that seems advisable from the standpoint of forest management may be problematic ecologically.

Do we want a pure Swiss forest, or a forest that fulfils its purpose in the best way? This is a political decision rather than a scientific one, where moral aspects come into play, says Christoph Hegg. Science aims at disclosing facts and interrelationships. “But the researcher is also a citizen, and is entitled to his own personal opinion”, the expert asserts. This double role presents a challenge, he says, because scientific facts and personal evaluation have to be clearly distinguished and declared as such.

Eawag, the water research institute of the ETH Domain, also provides the basis for a political decision, by its investigations into the micropollutants in Swiss rivers and lakes. Some of the cosmetics, hormones, medicines and biocides that we as consumers dispose of in waste water are only half-decomposed in the wastewater treatment plants. The remainder reaches the natural bodies of water, and so it can also end up in drinking water. “We were able to demonstrate solutions to this problem”, says Adriano Joss of the Process Engineering department at Eawag.

Upgrading the wastewater treatment plants

The same methods that are used to treat and prepare drinking water could also prevent the organic trace substances from getting through the wastewater treatment plants. Adriano Joss sums up by saying, “The two methods, ozonisation and also the treatment with activated carbon powder, are feasible here and not too expensive”. The results achieved by the Eawag researchers impressed the FOEN, as well as members of parliament and the Swiss Federal Council, so that the new Water Protection Act, which came into force in 2016, provides for an upgrade to the wastewater treatment plants. About 100 of the approximately 700 wastewater treatment plants in Switzerland are to receive an additional purification stage over the next 20 years.

According to Adriano Joss, the introduction of this fourth purification stage also represents an opportunity for Switzerland as a centre of knowledge and industry. Engineering and construction firms benefit most, because the upgrade requires investments in the order of billions of Swiss francs. All Swiss municipalities pay nine Swiss francs per inhabitant, into a fund that will cover 75 % of the cost of upgrading the wastewater plants. By doing this Switzerland is playing a pioneering role, Adriano Joss says, while in Germany for example the upgrading of the plants is highly controversial. By carrying out further studies the researchers hope to gain more knowledge which will enable them to further improve the method of removing micropollutants from waste water.

System for custom products

Most Swiss companies are small to medium-sized firms. For them, the ETH Domain offers the opportunity to do research on new developments in large-scale facilities, which they could never afford on their own. “Advanced Manufacturing” is the magic concept that will maintain and strengthen Switzerland as a centre of production. “At Empa we are focussing on new forms of coating technology and 3D printing”, says Pierangelo Gröning, member of the Directorate of Empa. “Swiss companies are world-leading in the field of coating systems.” To make sure this remains so in future, Empa is building a centre of excellence with installations that focus on production.

“Something that works in the lab may be problematic when implemented on a larger scale”, says the Empa researcher. “This has motivated us to reduce the gap between the lab and the practical application.” Switzerland and Europe have to be a step ahead in technology if they want to stay competitive with the rest of the world in the field of production. “This calls for a close cooperation between research establishments such as Empa and industry”, Pierangelo Gröning says.

The installations in the new centre of excellence should be capable of coating not only small samples but full-sized objects, for example the cylinder head of an engine. In this way one can test whether a new coating really does make the combustion process more efficient, as desired. “We offer the analytical methods to better understand these processes and develop the coatings further”, says Pierangelo Gröning.

Even before the new centre of excellence is opened in April 2016, Empa already has plans for the next extension phase. In the innovation park on the site next to Dübendorf airport a centre for 3D printing technology could grow, financed by a “Public-private partnership”. 3D printers make it possible to manufacture one-off items, thus leading to a more individual product – “a revolutionary technology”, the expert asserts convincingly. The goal of the development is to produce an autonomous 3D printer which can be operated from anywhere in the world without intervening on site. “It is Switzerland’s destiny to build this machine”, Pierangelo Gröning says.

Looking inside new materials

If companies want to take a really close look at their products during the development phase, the PSI in Villigen is the right place to go. This is where the Swiss Light Source (SLS) is available, a super-microscope. “We are selling what we call beamtime”, Stefan Müller, the scientific coordinator at PSI, says. Companies can book a few hours to have their material samples examined under the SLS using extremely bright and tightly collated beams around a wavelength ranging from x-rays to ultraviolet light.

“Using our equipment one obtains a much higher resolution, providing much more detailed information, than one does from an image made by a standard x-ray device”, says Stefan Müller, who is also managing director of SLS Techno Trans AG which advises interested companies. In 2015 this included a Swiss enterprise that plans to construct an inexpensive 3D printer. Before the device is ready for the market, there has to be the guarantee that it can print reproducible objects with certain properties that meet the required specifications.

“This is just the task for us”, Stefan Müller says. “Using the Tomcat tomographic beamline, we can show how the various layers are built up, and what the boundary layers look like.” The examination of the tiny material sample is non-destructive, unlike the tear-resistance test that is normally used, which also provides far less information. “By using the feedback we provide the company can adjust and optimise the control of the printing process”, explains Stefan Müller.

About 10 % of the total beamtime of the SLS is used by industry. The main portion is booked by pharmaceutical companies for the examination of proteins and active medical ingredients. With the help of the measurements obtained in Villigen they can learn how proteins and active ingredients interact together – an important step in the development of new medicines. “We are very well-known worldwide in the pharmaceutical sector”, Stefan Müller says. Now they are looking for new customers, especially in the field of materials research. “We want to be of appeal to small and medium-sized companies”, the expert says. “The potential is still immense and far from fully exploited.”