The inventor’s hour

© Photo | Deutscher Zukunftspreis / Ansgar Pudenz

Prof. Ferdi Schüth, jury chairman for the German Future Prize, is convinced that the push for resource efficiency will become industry’s new innovation driver.

“Save, save!” That’s often what it sounds like when politicians or environmental groups urge efficiency and further reductions in resource consumption. In our mind’s eye we can see their raised index finger.

But there’s also a completely different take on efficiency: “Forward, forward!” Because as we move toward using ever fewer resources, curiosity is a much more effective driver than austerity, and “smart” products will be more readily accepted than puritanism.

Those rare and sought-after commodities

There’s no denying we’re under pressure. Demand for raw materials is rising while supplies are dwindling, with the result that they are getting more expensive. The world economic crisis that started in 2008 only briefly slowed the long-term trend toward higher prices for things like crude oil. So now it’s not just individual entrepreneurs but in fact entire economies that are striving to free themselves from the dominion of commodity prices.

Curiosity is a much more effective driver than austerity, and “smart” products will be more readily accepted than puritanism.

From a global perspective, a critical challenge facing humanity is figuring out how to secure supplies of energy in the future. The issue is multi-facetted: How much energy do we need? How can we assure mobility? Which energy sources can we use? How do we adjust our energy infrastructure to accommodate them?

While we can only begin to guess at the answers today, we do at least know where the answers will come from. If we want to solve humanity’s energy problems, there are two things we will need more than anything else: researchers’ eager spirit of discovery and engineers’ patient will to come up with new and useful products.

Ultra-short pulse laser: saving both ways

Acase in point is the collaborative development of the industrial ultra-short pulse laser, which we honored by awarding it the 2013 German Future Prize. The University of Jena delivered the theoretical models and the preliminary experiments, Bosch developed the process, and TRUMPF implemented the requirements for an industrial-strength beam source.

With this product, resource consumption is reduced in two ways: first, the ultra-short pulse laser allows highly precise “cold” working of materials, which makes it extremely efficient. Second, many resource-saving products — such as innovative gasoline direct injection valves with extremely fine spray holes — couldn’t be manufactured without it; the smooth walls and custom geometries it permits ensure that engines use 20 percent less fuel.

Running short? Make a shift!

Currently we find ourselves in an interesting transition. Making efficient use of resources and energy often promises to bring down costs. Increasingly, however, it is being seen as a goal in its own right, both by society and by decision makers in business.

There is no doubt that our efforts to consume ever fewer resources and to push energy efficiency ever higher will be an important — if not the most important — driver of innovation in the decades to come.

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