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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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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

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