Hot Iron

Magdalena Speicher doesn’t exactly handle her test pieces with kid gloves. She exposes them to temperatures of up to 1,100 degrees Celsius, constantly stretches and strains them and sometimes damages them beforehand by introducing cracks. Yet it is all for a good cause: the higher the temperature the materials in turbines can withstand, the more efficiently they can be operated.

Materials research for lower CO2 emissions

The ten-year-old girl is standing in the dry dock of a shipyard in the Polish city of Szczecin, transfixed by the huge ship. Her father, a shipbuilding engineer, has taken her along to his place of work. His daughter Magdalena is fascinated by the size and metallic sheen of the hull. He takes her into the engine room. She observes the many different parts and smells the oily air. ‘How do you build such a ship?’ she wonders. From then on, she would pay regular visits to her father at the shipyard and he would explain to her the principles of process technology. She later undertook two work placements at the shipyard in Szczecin. That’s because she had already chosen her career by the age of 14. ‘It was clear to me that I wanted to be an engineer,’ says Magdalena Speicher today. ‘The shipyard made an impression on me.’ This is not unusual in Szczecin. A number of her friends, both male and female, felt the same way and many of them would later also choose technical careers.

At the combined heat and power plant in Altbach (district of Esslingen) it becomes clear why Magdalena Speicher thoroughly tests her materials.

Most ships are made of steel. Speicher has always been particularly fond of this material, which is why she used to attend seminars and lectures on metals wherever possible, even though the faculty of mechanical engineering at the West Pomeranian University of Technology Szczecin, where she studied material engineering, only specialised in polymer processing at the time. Only after graduating was she able to focus on metals at the University of Kassel, as a scientific assistant in the area of metallic materials. ‘I felt at home again, even though I had only just left my hometown,’ says Speicher with a grin.

Magdalena Speicher has been conducting research into metals ever since. In the course of her work she feels a duty towards nature and society above all else. ‘With materials that can withstand higher temperatures, we can help to increase the efficiency of power stations and engines. As such, we are able to reduce the negative impact of CO2 emissions,’ says Speicher. She has been carrying out research at the University of Stutt- gart’s Materials Testing Institute for twelve years and has been head of the constitutive equations department since 2012. She primarily works with ‘hot iron’, because she specialises in high-temperature materials for power stations and engines as well as the fracture mechanics of these materials at high temperatures.

To this end, she heats metallic test pieces for steam turbines to temperatures of 600 degrees Celsius. It gets even hotter when she tests materials used in the gas turbines of aircraft engines. Then the material is exposed to temperatures of up to 1,100 degrees Celsius. In this state, she then subjects the test pieces to mechanical stress and places the material under either constant or cyclically recurring tension. She subjects the test pieces to cyclical tension to see how the material reacts and, above all else, to establish how cracks form and progress. ‘We generally test the piece until it breaks,’ says Speicher.

Getting the measure of material fatigue

There is a tradition of material research in Stuttgart. The Materials Testing Institute at the university has been in existence since 1884; today around 330 employees carry out research in the areas of mechanical and civil engineering. ‘I have been working alongside the FVV since I started my job here,’ reports Magdalena Speicher, who was awarded her doctorate in 2012 as part of an FVV project. The Stuttgart team frequently works on projects in conjunction with the Institute for Materials Technology at the TU Darmstadt, with both establishments sharing the workload and project management tasks. ‘In the first instance, it’s always a case of actually producing the test pieces,’ says Speicher. These are small samples, around 92 millimetres long, made from the metal material defined in the research proposal, mostly with a diameter of eight millimetres and threads at the ends to fix them in the testing machine. ‘If we are testing the fracture behaviour, we introduce cracks to the test pieces beforehand.’ Then Speicher establishes the test parameters with her team, primarily the temperature and mechanical stress. The actual testing process can then last a few days or several years. The working group meets every six months and Speicher presents her findings mostly in the form of diagrams. ‘Based on their experience, project partners from research and industry give us tips that prove very useful for further testing,’ says Speicher. The latest project involves performing fracture mechanics tests on welded joints found in steam turbines of power stations. Speicher is testing both the material’s fatigue and its creep behaviour at temperatures of 600 degrees Celsius.

Magdalena Speicher doesn’t just enjoy travelling because she speaks six languages. Yet even then she occasionally finds herself dealing with high temperatures. Once such instance is in the volcanic land of Japan, where for quite some time the Materials Testing Institute has been conducting joint research with the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, 60 kilometres north-east of Tokyo. Or during private trips to Iceland, where she is particularly fascinated by the Strokkur geyser and the solfataras, from which post-volcanic gases spew at temperatures of between 100 and 250 degrees. These temperatures certainly seem quite low when viewed from the perspective of her test pieces.

Photo Credit: FVV | Rui Camilo

The people behind modern research

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Dr. Magdalena Speicher

Speicher was born and raised in Szczecin, the shipbuilding city on the Oder estuary. After leaving school she began studying material engineering at the West Pomeranian University of Technology Szczecin in 1993. A scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service took her to the University of Kassel in 1997. After graduating and then working for four years at the Material Engineering Institute in Szczecin, she returned to Kassel to carry out research into metallic materials. Speicher has been working at the University of Stuttgart’s Materials Testing Institute since 2004 and has been head of the constitutive equations department since 2012. She was awarded her doctorate in the same year as part of an FVV project. Speicher speaks six languages and likes to travel in her spare time. Her favourite destinations include Portugal and Iceland.

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