Power guzzlers: This is how German research wants to save in the energy crisis

Science power guzzler

This is how German research projects want to save energy during the crisis

Exterior shot of the Bessy II electron storage facility in Berlin-Adlershof

Research at the Bessy II electron storage facility in Berlin-Adlershof is to be continued without interruption

Source: picture alliance / Global Travel Images

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Whether data centers or X-ray sources: some research projects in this country consume a lot of electricity. Now the facilities are working on energy-saving plans for the winter. But it doesn’t always help to reduce the performance of the systems – because that can also backfire.

EThere are almost a dozen extremely energy-intensive research institutions in Germany – and this autumn they are all faced with the question: Where can electricity still be saved? Cooling down the heating in the offices hardly matters given the enormous quantities involved. But is it really an option to simply shut down the facilities temporarily and suspend scientific projects?

A look at the European neighbors reveals that the same problems are faced there – and now the consequences are being drawn. The world’s largest particle accelerator is taking its usual winter break early. Because of the energy crisis, the plant of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the Franco-Swiss border area near Geneva will be shut down on November 28, two weeks earlier than planned. The operating time is also to be reduced in 2023; by 20 percent in both years together. As a result, less data is generated for research, as research director Joachim Mnich explained.

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Meanwhile, the German research institutions are working on their own energy-saving plans. However, this is less about a reduction in ongoing experiments and systems than about savings in the building complexes. Cooling and ventilation performance is reduced, building temperatures are lowered, lights are switched off, the hot water supply is reduced or more photovoltaic systems are set up.

The Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB), for example, wants to continue operating the energy-intensive X-ray source Bessy II without interruption in the winter. The research there is a “basis for the safe, sustainable energy supply of the future and must therefore continue,” said an HZB spokeswoman. The aim is to develop energy supply concepts that do not use fossil fuels that are harmful to the climate. Research is being done on more efficient solar cells and materials for batteries as well as new catalysts for the production and processing of green hydrogen. The electron storage ring in Adlershof, including the associated facilities, requires as much electricity per year as 7,500 four-person households.

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At one of the largest data centers in Europe in Garching near Munich, the Leibniz data center, it was checked whether energy could be saved by reducing the clock frequency of the processors. “In reality, however, this means that the individual applications calculate longer on the supercomputer and in the end even consume more power,” explained the head, Dieter Kranzlmüller.

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The situation is different at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt: the accelerator there is in a planned maintenance phase anyway. And also at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Garching, the energy requirement for the large-scale experiment “ASDEX Upgrade” will be largely eliminated for the time being because it will be converted in the next two years. The second IPP experiment in Greifswald in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, “Wendelstein 7-X”, can neither be switched to an economy mode nor can the experiment time be shortened in a meaningful way, said a spokesman. However, it has been agreed with the network operator that, in the event of supply bottlenecks, the working and experimentation times will be shifted to lower-consumption times of the day.

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Chief Civil Protection Officer

The Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven, on the other hand, does not assume that planned expeditions will have to be canceled next year. The AWI operates the research ship “Polarstern”, which is in use on average more than 300 days a year, as well as other ships and polar aircraft. In this and the next two years, the significantly higher expenditure on fuel will still be covered by government grants or reallocations in the budget. “Should the current high price situation for marine diesel continue for several years or even worsen, the AWI’s expedition operations would be endangered,” the AWI said.

In fact, institutions are often less concerned with the short-term measures than with the long-term consequences that a prolonged energy crisis could have – and not only in Germany. At Cern, the French electricity supplier EDF asked for the shorter operating time. It should relieve the system significantly: In a full year of operation, the LHC accelerator consumes as much electricity as the households of a city of 300,000 inhabitants.

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In the LHC, about two billion collisions between protons are generated every second during the runtime. Physicists gain insights into the building blocks of matter from the decay processes. A shorter runtime means fewer collisions. Research Director Mnich explained that the loss cannot be made up for because the LHC and the devices that record the data are at their current performance limits. But: “Measured against the entire current LHC operating period of four years, 20 percent fewer collisions this year and next are bearable.”

But the physicists are thinking ahead. “If electricity prices remain high in the long term, this could mean that we have to reduce the physics program or stretch it out,” said Mnich. It will be checked where else electricity can be saved. Among other things, a new housing estate will soon be heated with the waste heat from the energy that is consumed. In addition, from the end of 2023, Cern buildings are to be supplied with the waste heat from a new data center.

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