EPFL plans new research center in Valais on the energy transition

The new building houses the Alpine and Polar Environmental Research Centre. © Olivier Maire

The new building houses the Alpine and Polar Environmental Research Centre. © Olivier Maire

Ten years after signing the agreement to open its Valais Wallis campus in Sion, today EPFL opened a new building on the campus: Alpole, which will serve as a research center on alpine and polar environments. EPFL also took the opportunity to unveil plans to create another research center in Sion – one focused on the energy transition – and has obtained preliminary approval from the Valais cantonal government.

EPFL and the canton of Valais marked the tenth anniversary of their collaboration with a flourish. On 19 December 2022, ten years to the day after signing the agreement to open the EPFL Valais Wallis campus in Sion, EPFL opened its new Alpole building. Alpole sits on the Valais Wallis campus, located within the Energypolis research park, and will house scientists and engineers studying Alpine and polar environments.

From left to right : Michael Hengartner, Julia Schmale, Roberto Schmidt, Sophia Dini, Martin Vetterli, Philippe Varone, Christophe Darbellay
© 2022 Olivier Maire

Energypolis is home to EPFL Valais Wallis, HES-SO Valais-Wallis and the Ark Foundation. With the opening of Alpole as part of the second phase of EPFL’s expansion into the canton of Valais, the park has now reached a new milestone in its growth strategy. Christophe Darbellay, head of the Valais Department of the Economy and Education, comments: “Thanks to Alpole, our canton is set to become a hub for R&D on new technology to meet the challenge of climate change.”

This development also gave EPFL a chance to unveil its plans for another research center in Sion, after signing a preliminary agreement to that effect with the Valais cantonal government on 30 November 2022. The new facility will serve as national center of research and training on the energy transition. “At EPFL, one of our priorities is to leverage our know-how to develop responses to climate change,” says EPFL President Martin Vetterli. “The new R&D center that we plan to build in Sion will house experts working on systems to produce, store and distribute clean energy, to help reach the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.” It will supplement and enhance the climate-change research being carried out at Alpole, and will open with four new EPFL Valais-Wallis research chairs.

Some 150 experts at Alpole

Today, Alpole is the new center of excellence joining EPFL’s ranks. The research conducted by its experts will look at how global warming is affecting highly sensitive ecosystems at high altitudes and latitudes as they struggle to cope with rapid change. The Valais Alps constitute one such ecosystem, and are an ideal testing ground for environmental scientists and engineers. The work being done at Alpole will benefit the international scientific community and will be especially important in light of today’s challenges.

Both the Valais cantonal government and the Sion municipal government provided substantial funding for the new building. In total, EPFL Valais Wallis and HES-SO Valais-Wallis received CHF 410 million in local government funding for their sites at Energypolis, and CHF 58.55 million of this amount (CHF 51.2 million from the canton of Valais and CHF 7.35 million from the City of Sion) were earmarked for Alpole.

Some final renovation work still needs to be done to the Alpole building before the research labs can move in. Eight EPFL research chairs – most of which have just been created – will eventually be based there, along with 150–180 highly qualified experts. Through a variety of research and teaching programs, Alpole will provide strong backing and support to the work being done at the Swiss Polar Institute, which has already moved its offices into the building. Alpole will also accommodate some researchers from EPFL’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Electron Microscopy (CIME) and the EPFL Valais-Wallis operations management team.

By the end of 2021, EPFL and its partner organizations had spent CHF 155 million setting up the Valais Wallis satellite campus. With Alpole, the campus now has 16 research chairs, including seven funded by the canton of Valais, and nearly 220 employees. Research labs at the campus have raised over CHF 104 million in funding so far from business and research institutes.

Videos to arouse children’s curiosity
In a new video series called De la glace à l’eau (From ice to water), EPFL professors in environmental engineering and the environmental sciences explain the research they’re conducting on snow, avalanches, the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Alps in an easy-to-understand way. These research topics are just some of the issues being explored at the new Alpole research center. The videos are intended for children, who may one day study at EPFL. They show how our scientists and engineers are using computer models to investigate natural phenomena and better understand the effects of climate change on extreme environments – effects that will ultimately have consequences for everyone.
The videos, currently avalaible in french only, were produced in association with Julia Schmale and Michael Lehning, whose research labs are based at Alpole, and with Alexis Berne and Johan Gaume.
You can watch the individual episodes on Instagram and the full series on YouTube.