With the construction of the Center for Water and Energy Management (ZWE) on the Hof University of Applied Sciences campus, a vision that was conceived 15 years ago by University President Prof. Lehmann and later pushed through politically has come to fruition. Prof. Dr. Willi Darr was later responsible for the initial concept of today’s Institute for Hydrogen and Energy Technology ( iwe) . We met with him, Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Jürgen Lehmann, the first iwe institute director Prof. Dr. Manuela Wimmer and the current director, Prof. Dr. Tobias Plessing.
Prof. Lehmann, in what situation did the idea of creating a new institute arise?
JL: “The history of the institute goes back to 2008. The topic of water was becoming more and more important internationally and therefore also became a focal point of the university and was included in our development concept. However, the question remained: how do we accommodate the relevant research? At that time, I discovered a pyramid-shaped glass building at the Nuremberg Clinical Center that inspired me. I discussed it internally and Prof. Dr. Robert Honke came up with a design for a glass pyramid, which already included the comprehensive integration of photovoltaics on the façade.”
But this was never realized..
J.L: “No, but this design was ideal for conveying the idea to politicians. After all, politics thinks strongly in terms of images and what they convey. Fortunately, the design of a water pyramid was successful, even if other designs were quickly discussed later for cost reasons alone. Incidentally, the research topic of energy was only added much later.”
A few years later, the content planning began. This is where Prof. Dr. Willi Darr came into play..
WD: “Yes, I came to Hof University of Applied Sciences in 2010 with many years of professional experience. Just one year later, the question of what an offer in the field of water could look like came up in the Senate. President Lehmann and Senate Chairman Prof. Hans Schmidt finally asked me if I could imagine creating a concept for this.”
What were the strategic considerations behind this idea?
WD: “Basically, it was about the realization that a significant cluster was forming in the region in the water sector, which would foreseeably also generate a corresponding demand for skilled workers. At the time, the Hof region already had a number of institutions from the water industry – such as pump manufacturers and water purification companies – in addition to the Water Management Office and the State Office for the Environment (LfU). Shortly before this, Hof had even been officially designated as a Bavarian water competence location by the Bavarian state government…”
…a corresponding award was presented by former Bavarian Environment Minister Söder at Hof Town Hall..
WD: “Exactly right. So there was a lot going on in this area, both economically and politically, and Hof University of Applied Sciences was wise to react to these developments. We were able to build on the content of the Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering that we already offered. In the subsequent work, I myself was always supported by thinking in clusters and competence centers, because they are an excellent basis for high-quality educational opportunities”
What were your first steps?
WD: “I had to really “smart up”. As I don’t come from this field at all and basically didn’t know much more about water than that you drink it and wash yourself with it, I naturally had to find out about it first. I had a lot of conversations, including with my colleagues Schrott, Boos, Rauch and Schmid.”
Above all, I wanted to understand what a water value chain actually means – in other words, what happens to the water from the source to its use, purification and recycling.”Prof. Dr. Willi Darr
He continues: “It was a lot about water chemistry and water biology. And then we had to define the areas in which we as a university wanted to be competent with the new institute and where it was better not to be.”
Which areas were chosen?
WD: “This decision was quite clear: in terms of content, it should be about water analysis, water treatment, water transport, distribution, pressure control and, of course, water purification. But then we had to define what we wanted to and could offer: The existing Bachelor’s had to be followed by a Master’s, of course, and ideally flanked by further education courses. And finally, we had to establish research on the subject and develop the relevant expertise. The aim was always to appoint experts from the university to regional and supra-regional specialist committees in order to be able to contribute the relevant expertise to government planning or associations, for example. And the most important thing was the competence for research and teaching, i.e. the high attractiveness for students”
That all sounds pretty problem-free now. Was it really?
WD: “Not at all. Because a concept is all well and good if you don’t yet have the necessary resources. And of course these had to be determined first and then financed. It was about teaching staff, administration, buildings and, last but not least, the necessary technology. I can still remember the situation when I discussed the identified needs with university president Prof. Lehmann. His reaction was clear. He said: “We’ll never get the money. We have to save money somewhere.” As it was snowing at the time, I jokingly suggested simply leaving the roof off the new building, which made us both laugh.”
How was the problem solved?
WD: “Professor Lehmann insisted to the ministry on the original plans. After talks in Munich, the university president got the building and the staff approved, but no material resources. One of the first tasks of the first iwe institute director was to raise funds for the technology in particular. Prof. Dr. Manuela Wimmer, who had just moved to Hof University of Applied Sciences, was recruited for this task. It was important that the new institute started with a proven expert at the helm. “
Prof. Wimmer, now it was your turn: how did the start go for you and what were your biggest challenges in setting up the iwe?
MW: “After I had been at the university for nine months, our president asked me in 2014 whether I could imagine setting up and expanding the management of a research institute in the field of water. Full of motivation and with a lot of naivety, I set to work. The task was divided into 2 areas: Accompanying the construction of the institute building and, on the other hand, setting up research, which could only succeed together with colleagues with an affinity for research.”
The foundation then took place in March 2015..
MW: “Yes. Our equipment was – let’s say – manageable.”
We had half an employee and EUR 3000 in material resources for the year. However, we were of course able to draw on existing resources such as professors. It quickly became clear that the basic concept could only be “bottom-up”. The institute initially had to function on the basis of existing resources.”Prof. Dr. Manuela Wimmer, then Director of the iwe Institute
She continues: “The aim was to synergistically link the area of water with the area of energy in order to achieve a major impact and bring them together in the Institute for Water and Energy Management.”
What human resources were involved exactly?
MW: “We had five professors interested in research, two of them from the field of water and three from the field of energy. There were no projects at the time and no funds that could have been accessed. In order to actually carry out research, however, financial resources are absolutely necessary and I saw my task as acquiring funds for research activities and – based on preliminary discussions with our president – to bring in further funds for a water professorship (endowed professorship) – with half a day off for research. In addition, organization and structures had to be established and rooms for potential employees had to be organized and equipped.”
How did you want to organize the iwe?
MW: “Prof. Darr’s basic strategic direction was excellent and was supplemented by the areas of digitalization, water infrastructure and the entire energy sector. Our future topics at the time were: digitalization in the water sector, the sponge city, energy systems, resource efficiency and sustainability.”
When was it clear that the foundation would be successful and that the positioning of the iwe was right?
MW: “From day one – as evidenced by slogans such as “climate change is water change” (*laughs*). Our joker was that the first application for a cross-research group project “Green Technology Workshop” was approved and funded by the EU with EUR 1.5 million. This created an excellent starting point for research and transfer activities.
The first scientific staff from the project and we research group leaders ourselves soon published our first publications and further funding decisions for research projects were received. In addition, the endowed professorship “Water Infrastructure and Digitization” was filled. This meant that our iwe was also recognized by renowned water research institutes in Germany, for example.
There is also a Master’s degree course in Sustainable Water Management and Engineering, which rounds off the profile – the first course started in the winter semester 2021/2022. With several hundred applicants, the demand is enormous. The research projects also benefit greatly from the fact that many Master’s students are very interested in working on projects as student assistants or Master’s students. I am very grateful that my concept for the 2020 course has developed synergistically in terms of teaching and research.”
Prof. Plessing, as the current director of the iwe, you and your team are shaping the present and, to a large extent, the future of the institute. What significance does the building currently under construction ultimately have?
TP: “For the architectural competition for the ZWE building, my colleague Honke and I developed the vision of constructing an energy self-sufficient institute building that would itself be the subject of research.
The original idea was to build a double pyramid at the suggestion of our President. That is why the building was always referred to as a “water pyramid” at the beginning. The design by the architects at M took up this vision and won the competition. The central component of the building is a large water reservoir in the middle of the building as well as a steel frame around the building, which allows us to attach solar thermal and photovoltaic elements to the façade. The roof and other peripheral areas also serve as an “outdoor laboratory”. So the building really becomes an object of research.”
What challenges still need to be solved today?
TP: “One of the biggest challenges is certainly to operate the building later on with a specially developed control and regulation system. To this end, Prof. Honke has submitted a research proposal to the 7th Energy Research Program of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate. Fortunately, the OUR-E project was approved. Robin Fick is now working on his doctorate on this topic as a research assistant in cooperation with the University of Bayreuth. Operating the water storage tank in conjunction with numerous different solar thermal applications will certainly be another challenge. We are glad that it is already in the building.”
Where do you see the iwe in 10 years’ time? What developments can we expect?
TP: “As the research groups have grown so quickly in recent years, and with them the number of employees, the University Council has decided to split iwe into two independent institutes. The iwe became the Institute for Hydrogen and Energy Technology (still iwe). “Water research” was continued in the Institute for Sustainable Water Systems (InWa).”
In ten years’ time, I hope that we will have been able to prove that our building concept is a working example far beyond the Hof region and that we are operating the entire university in an energy self-sufficient and sustainable way.”Prof. Dr. Tobias Plessing, Head of the Institute
He continues: “In the field of hydrogen, I hope that we will be successfully recognized as a progressive research institute in the scientific community in the application and alternative production of hydrogen. The first projects have already started and, together with the ibp and the ifm, we have submitted an interdisciplinary research proposal to the DFG for a research impulse (approx. €5 million).”
Prof. Darr, as the person who laid an important foundation stone with his concept, are you satisfied with the development today?
WD: “Of course we would have liked a faster solution in terms of construction, but that was not the responsibility of the university. In terms of content, I believe that all the goals have been achieved: the building is being built, the Master’s degree courses were launched in 2013/14 and are very popular, the research also provides a large number of useful findings thanks to a large number of projects and our lecturers are absolutely recognized. We can definitely be satisfied with that. Looking to the future also makes me very optimistic about the development of the iwe.”
Thank you very much for the interview!