Timo Gerres has interspersed his academic career with periods working in industry. Now in the final stages of his PhD, it is time for the next step. Continue his research or return to industry to put his academic insights to practice? Whatever his decision, he believes the move from academia to industry doesn’t have to be a one-way-street.
Before going to university, Timo Gerres attended an American High School for two years in New Delhi, where his parents worked. Back in Germany, he embarked on a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering & Business Management. “I always had trouble with the proper use of ‘du’ and ‘Sie’, the polite form in German”, he admits. Also, in a bid to stimulate the number of students, German engineering programmes had lowered their entry requirements. “This let to lots of mass teaching and high dropout figures, meaning the friends you had made in the first year or so, would disappear overnight.” He then came to the Netherlands for an internship with Eurodev, a business development group in Almelo, just across the border in the Netherlands. “My job with the industry division was helping US companies to get a foothold in Europe. I enjoyed working with my Dutch colleagues. They are very straightforward, and the atmosphere is less hierarchical than in Germany. That suits my character.” After this first step into the business life, in a pattern that was to repeat itself, he embarked on a Master’s degree in SEPAM (System Engineering, Policy Analysis and Management, now known as CoSEM) Complex Systems Engineering and Management at TU Delft’s TPM Faculty. “In Almelo I had worked with oil refineries, the dirty side of the energy sector so to speak. Now, at TPM we were looking at renewable energy from a systems perspective. How do you integrate fluctuating renewable energy sources to the electricity system? How do you create investor interest in new technologies? And how can government regulation stimulate this? Those kind of questions really sparked my interest.”
“Markets can be created by the state setting rules and regulations”, he continues. “In highly regulated markets, this can define the development of the entire system. Just look at how you can find solar panels on every second house in Germany, whereas hardly anybody in Spain installs them on their roof, because it has not been incentivised.” For his graduation project, Gerres modelled the behaviour of an electricity company that operated both solar and wind generation, but that also had to charge electric vehicles. “Such renewables fluctuate, so could such a company cope with the uncertainty in production, by possibly using the flexibility of electric vehicle charging?” That was back in 2014. “Since then, a lot of work has been done on the energy transition. We will see big changes in the electricity market in the next ten years or so, like the construction of countless large-scale solar power plants in Spain and Dutch electricity demand being met almost fully by offshore wind parks in the North Sea.”After working for a few years on offshore wind projects at TenneT in Germany, he is now a PhD researcher at the Institute for Research in Technology (IIT) at the Pontifical University Comillas in Madrid. There, he has turned his attention to the next-level challenge: the decarbonisation of (heavy) industry and its effect on our energy systems, “Many people don’t realise that for every tonne of cement produced, you emit roughly one tonne of CO2, not only because of fossil fuels being burned, but also due to the chemical reaction taking place inside the kiln.” Other industries making basic materials, like steel and plastics, also have a giant carbon footprints. In steel-making, for example, fossil carbon reacts at high temperatures with iron ore. That creates molten iron, but also a lot of CO2. “Yet due to a lack of clear long-term targets and commitment, disruptive changes in other sectors didn’t seem to be urgent”, Gerres says.
However, in the last few years the EU has set its target at achieving zero emissions by 2050. “That means we have to look at decarbonising these so-called ‘hard to abate’ industries, and that is a complex issue. To reach the high temperatures needed for the chemical reactions to make steel or cement, we have to burn fossil fuels, whereas other basic materials such as plastics are made from fossil hydrocarbons.” Moreover, these are all mature industries, that have been using the same processes for many years. Also, their installations have a long design life. “A cement kiln, for example, has a lifespan of between 30 and 50 years. So if we want to decarbonise cement-making by 2050, we have to start installing new low emission plants in the next five to ten years. That often means using technologies that are now still in the pilot phase”, says Gerres. Even where such technologies exist, e.g. the use of hydrogen instead of carbon or natural gas in steel-making, they also have to be competitive. “Nobody is going to produce or buy zero-emission steel if the operational costs are ten times higher.” Again, this is a problem that needs to be investigated at systems level. “We are looking at long-term strategies from all perspectives: the perspective of the industry, but also e.g. of the energy companies, which have to provide renewable electricity and produce alternative fuels for the industry. The link between processes to decarbonise the industry and consequently their changing energy demand is not well understood so far”, says Gerres. “We also need politics to create the right incentives to enable the technological transition, both for the post-COVID economic recovery and beyond. To make this transformation happen, national and European industrial policies have to stimulate investment in technologies that are still in the pilot phase, while regulatory changes can create markets for making low emission materials cost competitive.”
you should never be afraid to return to academia if there are open questions in your field of work, because academia is the ideal place to find the answers.― Timo Gerres
Throughout the years, Gerres has stayed in touch with TU Delft “On the personal side, I have a circle of friends dating back to my years in Delft. Normally we see each other at least once a year, but corona has temporarily put a stop to that”, he says. “I also have met a lot of alumni professionally. As it happens, when I applied for my current position, I got interviewed and hired by an ex-colleague from Delft. One of the reasons I ended up in Spain is that we knew the same people. My current boss is also an alumnus. Our links at academic level remain also quite strong. We collaborate well, and we also recruit from TU Delft.”Gerres has also been a loyal visitor of alumni events, both from the Dutch Engineers Alumni Network (DEAN), where he made good friends among alumni from both Eindhoven and Delft. It was at the first DEAN event in Madrid that he met Janneke Hermans from TU Delft Alumni Relations, who was looking for volunteers to organise future events. Timo happily volunteered. “I have been organising these events-in-a-box twice a year since then. You get a box containing traditional Dutch treats like ‘pepernoten’, but also things like games you can play to break the ice. It creates a nice atmosphere and you always get to meet new people.”He has observed that often love plays a part in young graduates coming to Spain. “People fall in love and come to Spain without a too much of a plan or speaking Spanish very well. For them, that social aspect is important. They also get useful tips from people who have been here much longer. I now know of several who are happy here and have found a job. That may not be entirely due to the event, but it certainly helps.”
Things haven’t been easy during the current crisis. “I think I have been working even more since March. Nobody comes for a coffee, meaning less distraction, but this is also an important part of working life. I miss the interaction that arises from having people around you in the office”, he says. “In the long run, this can be damaging too. When I started my PhD, I had people to talk to, I got to go to conferences and meet people that give you a different perspective on things or that you can collaborate with. People who are starting now miss out on that completely.” As it happens, together with researchers from several European countries Gerres started a network of researchers working industrial decarbonisation about a year ago, RENEW-Industry. “We started off on Zoom, but now we focus solely on online tools to bringing young scientists together who are not well connected right now.”
Three and a half years into his PhD, he is thinking about a next step. “I have to decide soon. It is a bit of a dilemma: on the one hand, there are still a lot of loose ends I want to tie up and the IIT is great place to work. We do a lot of technical consulting projects and additional work on academic projects, and that really suits me. On the other hand, maybe I will return to industry, to put in practice what I have been researching”, he ponders. “In academia you sometimes live in an ivory tower. That is a nice place to be to understand the greater picture, but if you sit up there too long, you lose touch with the real world. However, you should never be afraid to return to academia if there are open questions in your field of work, because academia is the ideal place to find the answers. I would encourage everybody who has worked in industry for a couple of years to reflect on that from time to time.”