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Millions in funding for new explosion protection project at PTB

PTB scientist Holger Großhans receives a Starting Grant from the European Research Council – € 1.5 million for five years


Dust can be explosive: In Germany alone a dust explosion caused by electrostatic charges happens roughly every ten days. Holger Großhans, who is employed at the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), has been awarded project funding worth € 1.5 million by the European Research Council (ERC). With this five-year project, he now wants to solve a long-standing scientific riddle: How do particles electrify and how can this be prevented? To tackle this question, Großhans will develop a new open source tool to compute electrostatic charging along with a novel method to measure powder flows. Within this interdisciplinary project, the interaction between fluid mechanics, materials science and electrostatics will be investigated in detail for the first time. The aim is to predict, evaluate and limit electrostatic charging.

The grantee and head of the project, Dr. Holger Großhans

It has been known for more than 2000 years that solids transfer charge upon contact – a phenomenon that fascinated great physicists like Michael Faraday and Benjamin Franklin. Today, triboelectricity (transferring charge through contact) is used in many industrial applications such as powder coating, laser printing or the triboelectric separation of plastic waste. These processes make use of the fact that the trajectory of charged particles (the toners in a laser printer, paint for cars and many other materials) is influenced by an applied electrical field and the particles are thus taken precisely to their desired location. But especially in fast pneumatic powder conveying systems, accidents keep occurring. “We do not know enough about how these accidents occur and how we can prevent them,” explains Holger Großhans. “We do know that powder flows accumulate charge – but we don’t yet understand why this happens and how much they charge.” The PTB scientist wants to change this.

With the € 1.5 million from the ERC Starting Grant, Großhans will set up a project group which will be made up of four PhD students and one postdoctoral fellow (apart from himself). In the five years of the project, which will be called PowFEct, the charge of individual particles and powders will be measured exactly by Großhans’s newly developed experimental techniques. This will make the online measurement of the electrical charge of a powder flow possible. Moreover, an innovative simulation program will be created. “Our main goal is to develop an interdisciplinary tool that will solve the equations of fluid mechanics, electrostatics and triboelectricity simultaneously,” states Großhans. And his attention will not only be drawn towards explosion protection. “What we are doing is fundamental research, and we are confident that this will give us a better understanding of the processes underlying many technical applications.” Furthermore, the findings might be of use in climate research. After all, dust storms can become electrostatically charged, not only leading to dramatic lightning, but also influencing the global climate.

Fundamental research across all disciplines is characteristic of projects funded by the ERC. An ERC Starting Grant, one of the European Union’s most prestigious awards, provides support for young researchers who want to establish their own group a few years after receiving their PhD. Holger Großhans is the first PTB scientist to be presented with this award.

PD Dr. habil. Holger Großhans, Head of PTB Working Group 3.51 “Analysis and Simulation in Explosion Protection”, phone: (+49-531) 592-3510, e-mail: Opens window for sending emailholger.grosshans(at)ptb.de