Is there anything new we can learn about steel? Peter Felfer, junior professor at the Chair of General Materials Science is often asked this question whenever he talks about steel, an area of research which he is particularly enthusiastic about. 'Steel is of such importance that every development of this material has an enormous impact on how sustainable our society can be,' explains Felfer. Steel has been used for centuries and in order to adapt this material to future challenges, Professor Felfer has received a Starting Grant of 1.5 million euros from the European Research Council (ERC).
'The importance of steel will become clearer over the next few decades, as hydrogen becomes a key fuel and steel tanks are needed to store it,' predicts Felfer. Hydrogen is the arch-enemy of steel. When penetrated by hydrogen, steel quickly becomes fragile and brittle. Scientists have been aware of this problem for over 150 years. However, they have not yet been able to discover which mechanisms lead to this corrosion. Further research in this area is critical, as vast investments will be made in infrastructure for storing and transporting hydrogen in the coming decades. 'Using any material other than steel in this infrastructure is not financially feasible,' says Felfer. 'The ERC grant means that we can now begin to investigate the damage caused by hydrogen at the atomic level.'
Felfer first noted the potential of this research ten years ago while writing his graduate thesis at MU Leoben. In his research, he used an atom probe to analyse the atomic structure of materials and assemble computer models from this data. 'Current atom probes are not capable of differentiating between hydrogen present in the measuring environment and in the material,' says Felfer. The ERC grant will help Felfer to build an atom probe which is largely free of hydrogen. Although this is a complex and costly endeavour, Felfer hopes that this unique device will reveal the mechanisms behind hydrogen embrittlement in steel.
Felfer has been teaching and doing research in the Cluster of Excellence 'Engineering of Advanced Materials' since 2015 and is one of many FAU scientists interested in hydrogen. FAU has been long-established as a pioneering research university in energy technology. Recently, a new Helmholtz Institute for Renewable energy was established at the Faculty of Engineering where intensive research is underway on hydrogen technology. "We are working together on finding solutions for all aspects of renewable energy,' explains Felfer.