Research and technology

Working in the Realm of the Invisible - High-tech Replaces Collieries

For centuries, the Ruhr region - the heartland of the Federal State of North-Rhine Westphalia - was defined by the coal and steel industries, giving rise to a unique culture of work and daily life. Now, with the structural transformation of the region, this traditional cultural identity is rapidly disappearing.

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The future of the Ruhr region has a new name: Leading high-tech research and production facilities for nano and micro technology, telecommunications and computer technologies. The bridge between industrial past and technological future generally known as ‘structural transformation’ is pressing ahead in the Ruhr region at a speed unheard of in almost any other German region.

What effects does this have on the local culture of work and daily life? We talk to a former coal miner now working as a micro-technician, as well as with scientists whose research and developments are contributing to progress of the transformation and creating new prospects for the region.

The exploitation of rich coal deposits in the 19th century laid the foundation for the growth of the Ruhr region – the industrial area in the heart of North-Rhine Westphalia with a current population of more than 5 million.

Where the coal production was is where people settled. In the middle of the countryside, regardless of existing village infrastructures, the industry itself created a structural framework to suit its own needs. Soon the most tightly knit rail network in Europe crisscrossed the region. Naturally, the meteoric rise in the fortunes of the combined coal and steel industries brought with it a huge demand for additional workers, which was mainly met by recruiting labour in Eastern Europe. The resulting population explosion in turn created a dramatic shortfall in housing. Catastrophic hygienic conditions combined with overcrowded living quarters led to chronic disease and epidemics. The industrial employers, however, dependant upon a healthy workforce, saw the need to take quick action. Soon, in the shadow of the winding towers, blast furnaces and smoke stacks, hundreds of mineworker’s housing settlements sprung up. Within just a few years, the thinly populated rural area became one of the world’s most important regions for heavy industry.

Today, many slagheaps have been greened over, industrial production facilities have disappeared behind noise-reduction barriers, and many a plant or industrial area has been turned into a museum or technology park. This has come about because, after the Second World War, in the midst of the German ‘Economic Miracle’ towards the end of the fifties, the advent of the first coal crisis signalled the irreversible decline of the region. In addition, the economic health of the German iron and steel industry – one of the coal industry’s major consumer markets – has been enfeebled by global competition. Hard coal is losing its monopoly as an energy source.

The Ruhr region has undertaken to further develop its traditional energy expertise and is now a leading location for the research, development, production and application of new and renewable energy technologies. The increasing risks associated with climate change, the depletion of fossil fuel deposits coupled with the simultaneous worldwide increase in the demand for energy combine to make this strategy a global necessity – and, increasingly, an economic success story for the region. The growing number of people employed here in the new energies’ sector is evidence of this.

The high-tech photovoltaic area has especially great potential for innovation and expansion. In this field, Germany already ranks - behind Japan and ahead of the USA – as one of the global market leaders in production capability and technological expertise. The photovoltaic industry predicts increased momentum in further development. According to prognoses, in this year alone the market is expected to increase by around 50 percent; it is expected that employment for another 15,000 highly qualified professionals will be created by 2006. "By 2050, it will be possible to cover around 30 percent of worldwide electricity consumption needs with solar energy. ": The prediction of Joachim Luther, head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems.

Furthermore, nanotechnology is considered the be all and end all of technologies for the future, but instead of "bigger, higher, farther" its motto is "smaller and smaller, faster and faster ". Nanotechnology is concerned with research and construction involving extremely small units or structures: A nanometre, for example, is a millionth of a millimetre, in other words, a billionth of a meter. Nano (Greek: dwarf) research looks at areas encompassing sentient and insentient natural phenomena. The resulting applications are relevant in energy technology for fuel and solar cells, in environmental technology for the recycling and disposal of materials, and in information technology for innovations in data storage and processing, as well as in health related areas. North-Rhine Westphalia years ago began promoting interdisciplinary research alliances, a foresightedness upon which the federal state’s leading position in the field of nano-sciences is founded. In the last five years alone, the NRW Ministry of Science has supported the nanotechnology sector with a targeted investment of nine million euros.
Goethe-Institut e. V. 2005
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