Prof. Dr. habil. Walther C. Zimmerli: BTU Cottbus – innovation engine of a region

In the state of Brandenburg, the topic of energy plays a prominent role. Not sur­­prisingly, for Brandenburg possesses natural resources, mostly lignite, and its landscape meets the requirements for regenerative energies. Besides, there are two pilot power plants here: in Prenzlau in the Uckermark region, the worldwide first hydrogen power plant is being built by ENERTRAG. In Schwarze Pumpe in the south of the state of Brandenburg, Chancellor Merkel inaugurated the world­­wide first carbon-­dioxide-free lignite-fired power plant in 2006. Brandenburg Uni­­versity of Techno­­logy (BTU) Cottbus is participating in both power plant pro­­jects with its research findings.
At its founding in Cottbus in 1991, the technical university was assigned a clear mission: contributing to the transformation of the open-pit lignite mining area. The scope was not limited to the energy field, but also included the renaturation of disturbed landscapes. BTU’s task was to research the transformation process and to give scientific impulses.

With its 6,500 students and 119 chairs, BTU Cottbus has evolved since. Its research priorities are: energy, environment, materials, construction as well as information and communication technologies. Research findings in the fields of energy and the environment, which have become practically inseparable, are in international demand on all continents: important countries like China, Brazil, Mexico and India cooperate with BTU Cottbus in the fields of energy and the environment. The interest in scientific findings gained in Lusatia is high in countries such as Canada, China, South Africa and Brazil since they face similar problems of reclamation, which were triggered by oil extraction or coal mining.

With all that international recognition, BTU Cottbus profits from its unique geo­­graphic location: That which other univer­sities must tediously create in the lab, BTU Cottbus can research right on its doorstep.
The open-pit lignite mining area, worldwide unique pilot power plants in the vicinity, landscape transformation as well as changing cities and municipalities – all provide BTU Cottbus with a real-life lab offering outstanding starting conditions for its transdisciplinary research. Through prac­­­tical projects, research almost simultaneously flows over into teaching, offering young people top career entry positions.


BTU Cottbus is currently among the 17 top research and innovation locations in the newly formed German states sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Since 2008, BTU Cottbus has been cooperating with the GFZ German Research Centre for Geo­sciences and the Uni­ver­sity of Potsdam in the GeoEN project. Besides geothermics, the interdisciplinary research of the vast geo-energy theme includes the utilisation of natural gas reservoirs occurring in shale, the more efficient use of fossil energy sources as well as carbon capture and transport. The objective of the project is to develop technologies that lead to a resource-con­­serving and climate-compatible use of regenerative energy sources.

While BTU research was originally focused on carbon capture and the corrosive properties of CO2, it now includes the possible utilisation of CO2 as a raw material. The goal of those CCU (Carbon dioxide Capture and Utilisation) and CCC (Carbon dioxide Capture and Cycling) concepts is to obtain methane or methanol from the captured carbon. Both are important base substances for a variety of materials, but they can also be used directly as fuels for vehicles or fuel cells.

The chair of power plant technology, held by Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim Krautz, researches the reduction of CO2 emissions in lignite-fired power plants. Those research projects are supported by a multitude of third-party sponsors such as the BMBF – for there is great interest in that work throughout the world. Prof. Krautz seeks contacts with South Africa, Brazil, China and India. “It would be easy,” says he, “to reduce by half the carbon dioxide emissions from the obsolete coal-fired power plants in the newly industrialised countries. Our research is running in top gear and has flourished to the point that industrial application is imminent. Cottbus, Lusatia, Brandenburg have the potential to become world champions of innovation in power plant technology.”

Prof. Krautz and his team are further researching the energy storage of the future: hydrogen. Research at BTU covers carbon capture as well as optimisation of the pressure electrolyser, which, following a trial in Cottbus, will be splitting the supplied regenerative energy under very high pressure into hydrogen and oxygen in the worldwide unique hydrogen power plant in Prenzlau.


The only Collaborative Research Centre (CRC)/Transregio in the state of Branden­­burg sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) has settled at BTU Cottbus. Under the title “Structures and New Processes for Ecological System Development within Man-Made Collection Pools”, this CRC/Transregio 38 is researching, in cooperation with ETH Zurich and the Technische Universität München TUM, how biotopes and biotic communities develop in ecosystems from the zero hour.

In a six hectare man-made spring area in the open pit of Welzow-South, researchers are examining how first microorganisms settle in and vegetation gradually establishes itself. The purpose of that work also includes investigating the formation of ground water and soil. Weather data are gathered permanently, ground water levels recorded, and water samples from the ponds and creeks in the area and from the ground taken and analysed. The project started in the middle of 2007. The duration of a Collaborative Research Centre being set for twelve years.
The first interim assessment for a second funding period until 2015 will take place in 2011. The findings gained at the CRC are already enjoying great international recognition since they are applicable to many regions suffering from landscape disturbances or even destruction.

Experts of the scientific scene have long known BTU Cottbus as an insiders’ tip – both among scientists and ministries. At the exhibition “20 Jahre Aufbau Ost” (20 years of development in the East) at the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research speaks highly of the university: “With its cross-technological approach, the small BTU has turned itself into one of the strongest voices in the environment/energy research field within the German-speaking area.”



Other energy and environment aspects play a big part at the most easterly of the technical universities. At present, an­­­other energy topic is at the ready: in a field trial under the direction of the uni­versity, an entire fleet of battery-driven cars is to be employed in the city of Cottbus as rolling temporary storage for regenerative energies. In cooperation with economic and industrial partners, that is a way to test to what extent this type of storage can increase network safety. An­­other innovation is the BTU-developed process for obtaining biogas from waste, which is already in heavy demand through­­out the world. Methane, the main component of biogas, has a high energy content and, therefore, is versatile, for example, as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional fuels for vehicles.

BTU Cottbus can also boast innovative findings in the field of material sciences as well as jointing techniques, and possesses state-of-the-art equipment: in 2010 alone, it acquired two laser machining centres (one for metals and another one for non-metals), which can be utilised to further develop new innovative processes in jointing technology. The state-of-the-art jointing techniques open up revolutionary material design possibilities in state-relevant economic sectors such as the construction of energy plants, cars and rail vehicles as well as aeronautics and astronautics.

Another important group of BTU research topics – construction – deals with questions of energy and urban technology or redevelopment. The chair of urban tech­­­no­logy, held by Prof. Dr. Matthias Koziol, researches solution approaches to energy-­­­efficient urban renewal on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development as well as the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR). It is to be embedded ecologically and economically into a meaningful urban redevelopment. The objective of the pro­ject, which is backed by funds of nearly half a million euros, is to develop models and strategies from ongoing model pro­­jects in participating cities and from urban redevelopment experiences, to be utilised for similar purposes in the future. To that end, Prof. Koziol and his team of scientists supervise 16 cities in Branden­­burg, Saxony-Anhalt and Hessen. In view of the looming climate change, dwindling fossil energy sources and demographic development, key tasks in many German cities include energy-efficient urban ren­e­wal and urban redevelopment. Thus far, there have been few experiences in the complex implementation of the required processes. That is precisely the starting point for studies at BTU to supervise model projects in participating cities as well as to draw conclusions for future projects and accompanying federal and state measures.

BTU Cottbus sends a diversity of impulses to the city, region and state. The high attractiveness that BTU, which provides upwards of 35 studies (including six inter­­national ones), enjoys among students is demonstrated by country-wide front-runner positions that it holds in the CHE/ZEIT ranking for industrial engineering and architecture. It ranks at the top for mechan­­ical and electrical engineering as well.




ec09140e35The author was born in 1945 and has been president of BTU Cottbus since 2007. From 1978, he held chairs at the universities of Braunschweig, Bamberg, Erlangen/Nürnberg and Marburg. Be­­t­ween 1999 and 2002, he was president of the private Witten/Herdecke University; between 2002 and 2007, he was founding president of AutoUni and a member of the top management at Volkswagen AG.