A minor revolution in aluminum production
Kati Tschöpe is one of the researchers behind the world's most energy-efficient aluminum production technology, which was developed at the head of Norway's longest fjord and is currently undergoing full-scale testing at Hydro's new pilot plant in Karmøy.
Poor English-language skills, a strong desire to learn more and a helpful professor from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology would all play a part in bringing the young engineering student from Frieberg in eastern German to Trondheim in Norway.
One of the brains behind the world's most energy-efficient aluminum plant
One dissertation, a PhD degree and a few years of intense research later, Kati is one of the key people behind the world's most energy-efficient aluminum production plant. She spends most of her time at Hydro's research center in Øvre Årdal, trying to make the technology greener.
Her husband, also from Germany, has recently relocated to Sunndal to improve the casting technology at the aluminum plant there. This gives Kati extra free time to experiment with future-oriented cultivation at the couple's new home in årdalstangen.
The young engineering student's keen interest in a reaction product in the lining of an electrolytic cell was what originally brought her to Norway. Kati has drilled deep into the lining, from the surface of the cathode block, which determines the life of the electrolysis cells where aluminum oxide under high temperature is turned into aluminum, to the insulation in the bottom that retains the heat inside the cell.
Strong connection between aluminum research and production
The path from theory to final solution is not always short, as Kati discovered. But in Årdal at least, the distance between research and production is only a few minutes' walk apart. The researchers and operators talk to each other and challenge each other every day. The researchers depend on the feedback they get from the production staff. This cooperation is vital for making small and big steps forward.
Often the research work is about getting even more out of mature technology, and it often takes many small steps to reach a given goal. Other times it is about achieving technological breakthroughs or major innovations. This is what Kati has experienced while developing the new pilot plant at Karmøy.
"The energy saving we've achieved is quite huge, and results from many technological improvements. But good results don't come from research and technological developments alone; having highly skilled specialists at all stages is vital. You don't put a rookie driver behind the wheel of a Ferrari," says the researcher.
Cooperation between skilled colleagues
Kati faced one of her biggest challenges when important details had to be modified while the pilot plant in Rogaland was under construction. At worst, there was the risk of the entire multi-billion-kroner project being delayed. Stress levels were high, but the problems were resolved through cooperation between skilled colleagues.
Kati describes herself as a "nerd" when it comes to cathodes, but even nerds don't get far unless they understand what is going on around them. That's why cooperation with her fellow researchers and the team testing the technology in practice is so critical. And why the challenges from the people around her are so inspirational.
The future belongs to those who create true value.
We are aluminum.