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Research Field Key Technologies

Scientists in the Helmholtz Association's research field Key Technologies work on topics including new components for tomorrow's computers, energy-saving supercomputers, and custom-made materials for use in technology and medicine. 


The goal of research in the field of key technologies is to develop generic technologies that contribute to the future viability of our society.

Nano-Spintronics-Cluster-Tool. Jülicher Wissenschaftler erforschen die Grundlagen für die Datenspeicher von morgen.
Bild: Digitalfotografie, Ralf-Uwe Limbach, Forschungszentrum Jülich

The researchers in the research field Key Technologies explore and develop generic technologies which will help to provide answers to the global challenges facing the society, in line with the new High-Tech Strategy and further programmes of the federal government.

The research programmes cover the complete spectrum from basic research to application, and work together in a multi-disciplinary manner. State-of-the-art research infrastructures (large-scale facilities and technology platforms) are scientifically developed through in-house research and made accessible to a broad community of users—external partners in particular.


In order to give fresh impetus to innovation and to consolidate Germany’s leading position as a research location, it is essential to further pursue the deliberately broad-based application-orientated basic research in the field of Key Technologies. In this regard, it is important to address the ethical aspects that are typically associated with research and technology development.

The research field addresses key scientific topics that will provide innovative impulses in the three major areas of the research field: information technology, materials sciences and life sciences. The research programmes in the fields of materials and nano-sciences, information and communication technologies as well as life sciences, implemented quite successfully in the last funding period, will be further strengthened and advanced. Integration of multi-disciplinary approaches, such as linkage of technology and medicine, biology and physics, simulation and “big data”, supercomputing and brain research, or microbial biotechnology and plant sciences, creates the basis for novel solutions in Key Technologies.

Programmes in the funding period 2015 - 2019

Three Helmholtz-Centres are involved in the research field Key Technologies: the Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ), the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG), as well as the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The research field comprises seven programmes as well as two joint programmes of the research fields Key Technologies and Energy: “Future Information Technology” and “Technology, Innovation and Society”:

Research Programmes

Supercomputing & Big Data

The main goal of the programme “Supercomputing & Big Data” is the provision of world-class instruments and infrastructures for high performance computing and for the management and analysis of large-scale data for computational science and engineering in Germany as well as in Europe and within the context of national and European frameworks.

Nano-Spintronics-Cluster-Tool. Jülicher Wissenschaftler erforschen die Grundlagen für die Datenspeicher von morgen.
Bild: Digitalfotografie, Ralf-Uwe Limbach, Forschungszentrum Jülich

Future Information Technology (FIT) – Fundamentals, Novel Concepts, and Energy Efficiency

The rationale of the research programme is twofold: First, it explores the fundamentals of solid-state based new technologies and strategies for a future green ICT. The focus lies on the development of highly energy-efficient concepts and processes for the storage and processing of information. Second, the programme will tackle material-related fundamental problems and microscopic mechanisms in the fields of energy harvesting, conversion and storage.

Science and Technology of Nanosystems

The programme Science and Technology of Nanosystems (STN) aims to implement a long-standing vision in science and technology, which is to control and shape materials from the atomic and molecular via the nano- and microscopic scales to the macroscopic scale in order to realise nanosystems with new and appealing functionalities.

Advanced Engineering Materials

The Programme Advanced Engineering Materials focuses on the development of selected materials and technologies, from fundamental understanding to technological application. Major challenges are the realization of low weight, high mechanical performance, and the implementation of multifunctional properties.

BioSoft – Fundamentals for future Technologies in the fields of Soft Matter and Life Sciences

The programme aims to engineer novel nanostructured functional materials and to develop knowledge-based strategies for disease therapy by means of application-orientated basic research in the fields of soft matter as well as molecular and cellular biophysics.

Bild: Forschungszentrum Jülich

BioInterfaces in Technology and Medicine

The scientists in this programme will conduct comprehensive analyses on cell cultures, biofilms, animal models and patient samples, in order to decipher the natural control mechanisms of cell division and cell differentiation. On this basis, rational design shall not only provide multifunctional synthetic molecules for the manipulation of cells in bioreactors or within the organism itself; it shall also facilitate the development of biomimetic substrates for 3D cultivation of stem cells.

Bilder: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Decoding the Human Brain

Decoding the Human Brain aims at contributing to a realistic, three-dimensional model of the human brain based on brain structure and function, both of which change or are modulated at different time scales. Among others, advanced neuroimaging techniques and methods from high performance computing are employed to provide the knowledge basis for such model. 

Key Technologies for the Bioeconomy

Key Technologies for Bioeconomy—as core of this cross-programme initiative—has the task to improve the potential of the most important biological systems, plants and microbes, to target bioeconomy challenges. 

Technology, Innovation and Society

The aim of this cross-disciplinary programme is to research the environmental, economic, political, ethical and social aspects of new technologies in order to support decision-making processes in politics, the economy and society as a whole.

Insights into Research Field Key Technologies

Here, we present projects currently being carried out by scientists at the Helmholtz Centres.

Breakthrough in electron microscopy crystal structure in three dimensions

Chunlin Jia from Jülich’s Ernst Ruska-Centre, a contributor to the study, working with the TITAN electron microscope. Image: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Forschungszentrum Jülich

With the help of an ultra-high-resolution electron microscope, it is possible to reconstruct crystal structures three-dimensionally down to the last atom. This feat was recently achieved by scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich, the Ernst Ruska-Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons (ER-C) and China’s Xi’an Jiaotong University. The process is especially well suited for the complete spatial mapping of radiation-sensitive samples, which would be quickly destroyed by a high-energy measurement beam.

The surface of nanoparticles determines their physical and technical properties to a much larger extent than is the case with other materials. Now the team of scientists has succeeded for the first time in calculating the spatial arrangement of the atoms in nanoparticles using a single image from an electron microscope.

The comparatively short data acquisition time involved could even make it possible in the future to observe the transient intermediate steps involved in chemical reactions. Moreover, the “gentle” measurement procedure allows the detection of not only heavy but also light chemical elements. For the new 3D measuring process, a thin crystalline specimen is positioned in the microscope such that the atoms at the intersections of the crystal lattice lie exactly on top of one another, forming columns along the observation axes. These atom columns are later only visible as bright spots on the microscopic image. A special imaging mode is used to improve the signal/ background ratio, rendering visible subtle variations that show the researchers the location of the individual atoms in the columns along the beam trajectory. To reconstruct the spatial structure, the scientists compare the image with calculations made on a computer. They then gradually match the calculated model crystal to the image from the electron microscope until optimal correspondence is achieved. In order to verify the uniqueness of their results, the scientists performed extensive statistical tests. These showed that the method is not only sensitive enough to detect each individual atom, but also to differentiate between the elements making up the crystal.

New possibilities in the design of block copolymer membranes

Mixing two block copolymers results in a mean pore size in the membrane with a linear dependence on the mixing ratio. Image: HZG

Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG)

Until now, it has been necessary to synthesise a tailored block copolymer for every isoporous membrane with a particular pore size. At the HZG Institute of Polymer Research, membrane researchers have now developed a time-saving and surprisingly simple method that enables them to achieve the desired pore size by simply mixing two block copolymers in a linear mixing ratio.

Regulation of stem cells via micro-structured polymer surfaces

The spatial organisation of the stem cells in accordance with the geometry of the micro-indentations (left) influences cellular processes. This can be seen in the density of bone-cell formation (right). Image: HZG

Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG))

At the HZG Institute of Biomaterial Science, scientists have developed a polymer surface featuring micro-indentations of different depths that are able to regulate the characteristics and functions of stem cells. Working with human mesenchymal stem cells (precursor cells of connective tissue), they found that, in contrast to a circular arrangement, quadratic structuring of such indentations supports not only cell division and tissue formation but also the development of bone cells. These findings provide useful information for the design of medical implants that promote the body’s own tissue regeneration.

Limited wing reflection makes butterflies almost invisible

In contrast to other transparent surfaces, the wings of the glasswing butterfly (Greta oto) barely reflect any light at all. Image: KIT/Radwanul Hasan Siddique

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Anyone who uses a mobile phone is familiar with the way reflected sunlight obscures the display. Now, it seems that a remedy to this problem was found in nature. The transparent wings of the glasswing butterfly barely reflect any light at all, making the butterfly invisible to predators. Scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have discovered that this lack of reflection is due to the effect of irregularly arranged, pillar-like nanostructures on the surface of the butterfly’s wings. The researchers were able to reproduce this effect in theoretical experiments.

Pseudiparticles travel through photoactive material

Scientists investigated the formation and movement of so-called polarons in the photoactive material zinc oxide. Image: Patrick Rinke/Aalto University

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Processes converting light into storable energy can contribute decisively to a sustainable energy supply. Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have now discovered the mechanism involved in an important step in such processes. In cooperation with scientists from the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin and Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland, they studied the formation of so-called polarons in zinc oxide. These pseudoparticles travel through the photoactive material until they are converted into electrical or chemical energy at a boundary layer.

Supercomputer confirms our view of the world

The JUQUEEN supercomputer at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Image: Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Forschungszentrum Jülich

The only reason that atomic nuclei have the properties that make our world possible is that the neutron is very slightly heavier than the proton. A European team of scientists that includes Jülich researchers has now calculated the tiny difference in mass using Jülich’s JUQUEEN supercomputer. Their findings have been published in Science and are regarded by many physicists as a milestone and as confirming the theory of the strong interaction – one of the building blocks of the Standard Model of par- ticle physics.

Remeasuring the van der Waals forces

Schematic experimental setup: when different types of molecules are removed
from a metal surface the van der Waals forces can be determined using frequency
changes at the tip of the atomic force microscope. Image: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Forschungszentrum Jülich

The van der Waals forces are responsible for the fact that even molecules with saturated bonds still attract one another. In other words, these forces act like a sort of quantum glue on matter. Jülich scientists have now used a new measuring technique to determine how strongly they bind individual molecules to a surface. With an atomic force microscope, they demonstrated that the forces not only increase with molecular size but do so disproportionately. Their findings could contribute to the improvement of fundamental simulation methods.


Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Marquardt

Research field coordinator Key Technolgies

Forschungszentrum Jülich

52425 Jülich

Postal address:
52425 Jülich

Phone: +49 2461 61-3000
Fax: +49 2461 61-2525
w.marquardt (at) fz-juelich.de

Dr. Katrin Feuser

Research Field Key Technologies

Helmholtz Association

Phone: +49 30 206329-20
katrin.feuser (at) helmholtz.de