Spotlight On: CSIRO Energy Director Dr Dietmar Tourbier

Smiling man in suit with foliage in background (Tourbier CSIRO)
CSIRO Energy Director Dr Dietmar Tourbier (Image: DArtz Images)

As Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO aims to deliver the science and technology that will enable Australia’s transformation to a net zero emissions energy future. Here, we meet the organisation’s new Director of Energy, Dr Dietmar Tourbier, whose job it is to lead the team dedicated to helping achieve this.

Dr Dietmar Tourbier was born and raised in Trier, Germany—the oldest city north of the Alps. The Tourbier family home was nestled along the Moselle River, just a stone’s throw from the borders of France and Luxembourg. The Moselle wine region is famous for its Rieslings—my wine of choice—although Tourbier has a strong preference for reds, particularly Shiraz.

Asked how he came to reside in Australia, Tourbier explains he’s lived all over the world, but decided to settle in Australia after marrying his wife Michelle, who he first met while studying his PhD at the University of Arizona. The couple now live in the idyllic surrounds of Mount Martha near Mornington in Victoria, and share a 15-year-old son, Jasper, and Michelle’s son from her previous marriage, 29-year-old Aiden.

Tourbier’s career began when he commenced a diplom ingenieur—the equivalent of a master’s degree—at the University of Stuttgart in Germany studying aerospace engineering.

“I’ve always been interested in space. I remember being five years old when the moon landing was televised live. I can still picture myself sitting in front of the TV, watching the first pictures of Neil Armstrong stepping out onto the lunar surface. I will never forget that.”

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His first big discovery took place while working on his PhD thesis on computational fluid dynamics.

“I discovered that the wake behind a supersonic rocket or a bullet is turbulent and not laminar, as it was believed to be. But when I first presented that, I was told the results were wrong, that it was just a computer modelling error. Only a year later, people actually found in a laboratory setting that it was indeed turbulent.

“So that was an interesting discovery I made early in my career, even if I didn’t end up making a living out of it.”

After completing his PhD, Tourbier was hired by Allied Signal, an aerospace company that acquired Honeywell and adopted its name due to its brand recognition.

“They wanted me to work in computational fluid dynamics, but I was more attracted to working on technologies for space. So, I worked on a new spacesuit technology based on an elastomeric material, which puts mechanical pressure on your skin rather than having an atmosphere on your skin.

“I tested the technology using a glove prototype at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. And that was exciting, except that I discovered I was quite claustrophobic. The testing meant I had to go into a vacuum chamber for 10 hours. And I really panicked. I made it through and completed the test, but I knew I was never going to do it again. So, that was the end of my aspirations of becoming an astronaut.”

After realising he wasn’t cut out for space exploration, Tourbier took up a request calling for a systems engineer to help out with the development of a hydrogen fuel cell.

“At the time, Honeywell and later GE were developing a product for using hydrogen to generate electricity by using the fuel cell, and they needed a system engineer who could oversee construction of the overall system. I took that on and subsequently developed a passion for clean energy through fuel cell development,” he says.

In 2007, GE stopped working on fuel cells and asked Tourbier to go to Germany and help grow a Germany-based Corporate Research Centre. Establishing a power electronics team, he developed for GE the first silicon-carbide-based solar converter, which had the benefits of being cheaper and much more efficient than the conventional silicon-based version. He became GE’s European Research Leader in 2011, but left the company in 2018 when he moved to Australia to put down roots with Michelle, Jasper and Aiden.

It was Michelle who saw a job advertisement from CSIRO seeking a director for the Australian Solar Thermal Research Institute (ASTRI). Dietmar applied and was successful.

“The first question that was asked in the first interview was what I thought of solar thermal. And I, my response was, ‘I don’t think it’s going to make it’. That was interesting,” he chuckles.

“Solar thermal has an enormous challenge of competing with PV in the Australian electricity market. With solar thermal, generating electricity is more expensive than solar PV. But solar thermal naturally comes with storage, whereas PV doesn’t. Storing the energy is a factor of five cheaper than it is with batteries. So when you add storage to the equation, that’s when it actually gets on par.

“While the technology has come a long way, we still don’t have a solar thermal plant running in Australia. We’re getting there though, and ASTRI is working closely with industry to develop a demonstration plant.”

Having served as ASTRI Director since 2018 and later as the Deputy Director of Energy, Tourbier was invited to apply for the Director of Energy position in 2022. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“CSIRO has more than 5,500 staff now. It’s fantastic to see the growth of the organisation and the impact it has delivered. During Larry Marshall’s time as chief executive, CSIRO has more than doubled its benefit to the nation. That’s what we’re really about—not just having cool science, but making sure that science has a benefit to the country,” Tourbier explains.

CSIRO is currently on a mission to solve the nation’s biggest challenges, one being sustainable energy and resources.

“I’m really excited to be in Australia as the world is going through this global energy transition,” Tourbier says.

Smiling man in suit standing at driver's door of CSIRO-branded electric car (tourbier)

Dr Dietmar Tourbier (Image: DArtz Images)

“In my opinion, Australia has a unique opportunity. Many parts of the world are looking to Australia to be part of their energy transition solution. During an Australian delegation to Germany in 2018, I was part of a discussion panel at a power-to-X international conference. The panel was looking at ways the international community could work together and had assigned different roles for different countries. They had labelled Australia as ‘the sleeping giant’, being the one that provides a lot of that abundant green energy to the rest of the world. And I remember asking, ‘Does Australia know that?’

“I think we often don’t realise this is a pivotal moment for the nation to utilise our natural, clean resources—not only for Australia, but to help the rest of the world. So, I’m excited to be living in Australia, working in the energy field.

“We’re moving towards clean energy at a very rapid pace. We’re changing from today’s energy system to a future energy system. But we need to make sure that this transition happens as quickly as possible while energy remains affordable, competitive, secure and reliable.

“The good news is that in Australia the percentage of renewable generation is now about 30%, comprising solar, wind, hydro and some biomass. And at the rate we’re going, it seems easy to get there by 2050. Generating our electricity from clean energy is not the biggest challenge.”

The real challenge?

“We need 10 times the amount of PV installed that we currently have today. The largest amount of solar installed in Australia in a single year was about 7GW in 2021. We need 20GW of solar PV installed per year for the next 20 years to make this happen. The biggest challenge is going to be making sure we have the components and the people required to install the PV.

“We also need to diversify our solutions. If we bank everything on silicon-based PV and current technology, that will worsen the supply chain constraints. Solar thermal, for example, may be more expensive than PV today, but it doesn’t require the same componentry. There’s no one silver bullet solution and diversification will improve our chances of reaching net zero by 2050.”

These considerations form the basis of CSIRO’s approach to helping innovators commercialise their products and solutions, with the primary goal of helping Australia’s transition to net-zero emissions.

“Our focus at CSIRO is identifying how we can get more energy though the existing system infrastructure, keeping in mind that it needs to be increasingly flexible but still reliable.
“There’s a lot we can do to this end, such as reducing our emissions by 20-30% just through efficiency gains of energy end use,” Tourbier says.

“We’re also looking at higher efficiency and lower cost solutions for electricity generation such as perovskite-based PV cells. Another focus is helping our industry and transport sectors to decarbonise, especially where electrification is not an option. That’s where we have to look at ways we can produce, distribute and store hydrogen at a lower cost.

“If we really want to build a hydrogen export market here in Australia, we need to look at solutions for storage. Considerations include underground storage, liquification for storage, converting hydrogen into ammonia so it can be used as a carrier but also as a final fuel, for example, in fuel cells.”

Looking at the inescapable realities of successfully reaching net-zero emissions, Tourbier emphasises the need for carbon capture and utilisation technologies.

“We cannot do this transition without capturing and storing CO2 in the process. If we can utilise it and make things with it, great, but the demand will be an order of magnitude smaller than the amount of CO2 we need to take out of the system,” he says.

“So we will have to store it, and our role at CSIRO is to make sure when we do it, we do it safely and reliably. So, we are directing a lot of effort into helping develop technologies around CO2 storage and monitoring.”

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Our conversation turns to community participation in the transition to renewables, which Tourbier says is a crucial component of CSIRO’s mission.

“This transition impacts everybody. The community engagement in this transition has a couple of parts to it, including understanding what the technologies are and what will be required. But in my opinion, it is also an opportunity for communities to participate. Now, we’re seeing that people are interested in generating their own energy and not only saving money but making money. And that is an important opportunity we shouldn’t overlook.”

CSIRO is currently in the process of adding two new missions to its slate: Renewable Energy Powerhouse and Smart Energy.

“Our aim with Renewable Energy Powerhouse is to look at the supply chain ’value add’ opportunities here in Australia. We want to identify ways we can move Australia a bit further along that value chain where it makes sense to do so,” Tourbier says.

“With Smart Energy, we’re looking at ways we can enable reliable, affordable, sustainable and equitable energy for industry and communities by building integrated systems intelligence into Australia’s future energy system. Focus areas will include integrated transformation, digitalisation and democratisation.

“We’re going to be transitioning to a complex energy system, this is something that I firmly believe is going to be needed. And who else but CSIRO should be doing that? We can’t afford to wait 10 or 15 years to do this. The time is now.”

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