Helmholtz Association

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.

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

The research programmes pursued in this field cover the spectrum from fundamental research to concrete applications, are based on multidisciplinary collaboration, and make use of an excellent infrastructure specifically catering to large-scale research. Key technologies research at the Helmholtz Association supports the high-tech strategy of the German government, particularly in the areas of bio- and nanotechnology, micro- and nanoelectronics, optical technologies, microsystems and materials technology, and information and communications technology. It is setting the pace for innovation and developing these future technologies in order to secure Germany’s leading position in these fields and to ensure its competitiveness as a location for industry. Our research into key technologies takes into account the recommendations of the Industry-Science Research Alliance concerning the specified fields, the resolutions of the Bio-economy Research and Technology Council, and strategic considerations in the EU regarding key technologies.


The research field of key technologies pursues basic and application-oriented research. Energy, health, mobility, safety and communications are all emerging as areas for which sustainable technologies need to be developed. For this reason, the research field is consolidating existing programmes in the areas of materials science, the nanosciences, information and communications technology, and the life sciences. New interdisciplinary topics include technology and simulation in medicine, a sustainable bioeconomy, structural and synthetic biology, along with simulation, data management and data analysis on the exascale. Key technologies researchers are working to develop processes in the materials sciences, physics and chemistry; these will find application in the areas of energy provision, mobility and medical treatments.

The Programmes in the funding period 2010-2014

Three Helmholtz centres are involved in key technologies research: the Forschungszentrum Jülich, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG), and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The six core programmes in this research field are supplemented by a seventh, “Technology, Innovation and Society”, which is being pursued in cooperation with the field of energy research at the Helmholtz Association.

Research Programmes


The processing of large volumes of data and the modelling of complex systems are important research activities. By focusing on supercomputing and grid computing, this programme provides science in Germany with indispensable infrastructures.

More details about Research Programme Supercomputing

NANOMICRO: Science, Technology, Systems

In this programme, new functional microsystem structures made from plastics, metals or ceramics are developed and the application potential of nanostructured materials in such structures is examined.

More details about Research Programme NANOMICRO: Science, Technology, Systems

Advanced Engineering Materials

This programme develops novel metallic and functional polymer-based materials for lightweight construction in transport and energy technology, for chemical process engineering, for future hydrogen technology and for medical technology.

More details about Research Programme Advanced Engineering Materials

BioSoft: Macromolecular Systems and Biological Information Processing

Fascinating research areas are currently emerging alongside new technological approaches at the interface between physics, chemistry and biology. In the area of soft matter, the properties of macromolecules and their cooperative behaviour are examined on length scales ranging from nano- to micrometres.

More details about Research Programme BioSoft: Macromolecular Systems and Biological Information Processing

BioInterfaces: Molecular and Cellular Interactions at Functional Interfaces

The aim of biologists, chemists, physicists, IT specialists, engineers and mathematicians working together in the BioInterfaces programme, is to control living systems.

More details about Research Programme BioInterfaces: Molecular and Cellular Interactions at Functional Interfaces

Key Technologies for the Bioeconomy

Die Aufgabe des Programmes „Key Technologies for the Bioeconomy“ im Rahmen eines umfassenden Konzepts der nachhaltigen Bioökonomie ist die Optimierung der biologischen Ressourcen für die Bioökonomie. 

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.

Data Storage of the Future: Energy-efficient and Powerful

Rainer Waser has developed particularly small, economical data storage devices. Image: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Forschungszentrum Jülich

The goal of developing computers, sensors and energy convertors that use very little energy could be achieved using so-called redox-based resistive memory cells, or ReRAM. Rainer Waser is researching and developing these miniscule, fast and energy-saving electronic components at Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen.

In conventional data storage devices, electrons are moved around and stored. However, it is difficult to “subdue” these elementary particles in order to ensure that the stored information is not lost over time. It is not only storage density and speed that are problematic – this form of data storage also requires a lot of energy. For this reason, scientists all over the world are working on nanoelectronic components that use charged atoms, or ions, to store data. Ions are several thousand times heavier than electrons and are therefore much easier to restrain. As a result, individual storage elements using ions can be reduced in size to almost atomic dimensions while retaining an enormous storage capacity.

In ReRAM cells, ions behave like batteries. The cell contains a metal oxide layer only a few nanometres thick that connects two electrodes. Electrical impulses move the ions in the metal oxide, producing redox processes. As a consequence, the level of electrical resistance changes, an effect that can be exploited for data storage. The stored information remains intact even when there is no electricity flow. At the same time, the ReRAM cells can be switched a thousand times faster and require a thousand times less energy than elements in conventional data storage devices.

The physical phenomenon on which such resistive cells are based was discovered as early as the 1960s, but scientists were initially unable to work out how it functioned in detail. In 2006 the group around Rainer Waser succeeded in deciphering the workings of this mechanism: the electrical resistance of a metal oxide layer changes abruptly and reversibly when voltage is briefly applied to it. In recent years, the development of ReRAMs has become one of the dominant trends in nanoelectronics, and today Rainer Waser and his colleagues are collaborating with companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and Toshiba.

HZG Membrane Technology for Biomass Production Using Flue Gas

Algae grow inside the facade, nourished by CO2 from the building’s heating system. Image: HZG

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

As part of the International Building Exhibition held in Hamburg in 2013, the biotech firm SSC GmbH installed the world’s first bioreactor-facade on a residential apartment block. The facility is designed to produce both algae biomass and heating for the building. Inside the facade, algae grow using carbon dioxide from the flue gas produced by a biogas-driven heating system. In order to provide enough nourishment for the algae over a 200-square-metre surface, SSC uses a module equipped with CO2-selective membranes developed by the HZG. This module increases the CO2 concentration from 9 to 45 per cent by volume and has now been operating fault-free for a full year. 

Functionalisation of Implant Surfaces

Contact between blood and materials with a rough surface (grey) can trigger clotting due to the adhesion of proteins such as fibrin (green) and blood platelets (red). Image: HZG

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

The HZG Institute of Biomaterial Science has developed a technique for preventing undesirable blood-clotting on the rough surfaces of implants. It involves shielding the surfaces of the materials used in implants by means of multiply connected, highly branched etherbased elements. As a result, significantly less of the blood platelets and proteins, like fibrin, involved in blood-clotting are able to attach to implant surfaces. Implants made of materials functionalised in this way tolerate contact with blood better than conventional implants.

Combs of Light Accelerate Communication

Optical microresonator made of silicon nitride. Image: J. Pfeifle/KIT

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

The amount of data generated worldwide is growing continuously. With the help of light, this data can be transmitted rapidly and efficiently. Scientists from KIT and the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have now demonstrated that data streams can be transmitted over distances of several hundred kilometres at a speed of 1.44 terabits per second using miniaturised optical frequency combs – this corresponds to the data volume produced by more than 100 million telephone conversations.

Sticking Like a Gecko

Scanning electron micrograph of microhairs modelled on the structures on a gecko’s foot. The hairs are shown before and after cleaning (small mage) by means of lateral friction contact with a smooth surface. Image: M. Röhrig/KIT

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

A gecko’s feet have one clear advantage over adhesive tapes: even after repeated contact with dirt and dust they still adhere efficiently to smooth surfaces. Researchers at KIT and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, have now developed the first adhesive tape that not only adheres to a surface as effectively as a gecko’s foot, but also possesses similar self-cleaning properties. The tape retains its adhesive quality even after multiple uses and has obvious applications in areas such as food packaging and medical bandaging. 

The Iridescence of the Bird-of-Paradise

Fascinating for both female birds-of-paradise and scientists: the plumage
of the male Lawes’s parotia. Image: Justin Marshall

Forschungszentrum Jülich

Male birds-of-paradise use the play of colours generated by their feathers to impress potential mates. Physicists from Jülich and Groningen in the Netherlands have now used computers to simulate the optical properties of the neck and breast feathers of one bird-of-paradise species. As they report, the results of the simulation show a very high degree of correspondence to previously measured light-scattering patterns and reflectance spectra. This work has enabled the researchers to provide a precise explanation of how the feathers’ colours are generated through the reflection of light on the nanostructures within them.

New Licensee Adopts Technology "Made in Geesthacht"

Joining technology allows different materials to be stably welded together, for example, in aircraft construction. Image: HZG

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

Since 1999, solid state joining specialists at the HZG have been awarded twelve patents. This success has come from research on friction-based joining technologies used to connect very different materials, such as aluminium and steel or fibre-reinforced plastics and metals. Durable connections between such materials are vital to the development of lighter, damage-tolerant aircraft constructions and crash-proof vehicle components. A licensee cooperation agreement covering all twelve patents has now been signed with the machine construction specialist Loxin, which has its headquarters in Esquiroz, Spain.


Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Marquardt

Reseach 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