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Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Pioneers of Electron Microscopy

Maximilian Haider from CEOS GmbH in Heidelberg, Harald Rose, senior professor at the University of Ulm, and former ER-C director Knut Urban from Forschungszentrum Jülich are the recipients of this year's BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Basic Sciences category. The BBVA Foundation, which is backed by the Spanish financial group Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria decided to award the prize to the three scientists in recognition of the central role they played in developing a new generation of aberration-corrected electron microscopes. These microscopes made it possible to image atomic structures right down to displacements on the picometre scale (1 picometre is equal to one billionth of a millimetre), which revolutionised materials science. The award is worth € 400,000.

The three physicists joined forces in the early 1990s with the aim of correcting the image aberrations in electron-optical lenses that have existed since the invention of electron microscopy. As part of a project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and the German Research Foundation, they developed a corrector that compensates for these aberrations in a manner similar to the divergent lens in an optical microscope and they produced a prototype aberration-corrected electron microscope in 1997. The most important element in the corrector, which Maximilian Haider constructed based on a design proposed by Harald Rose, is the superimposed magnetic multipoles and, later, electrostatic multipoles. However, the microscopic images produced in this way cannot be directly interpreted. They do not show the atomic structures directly and they are strongly influenced by the laws of quantum physics. It was Knut Urban and his colleagues at the Ernst Ruska-Centre who made insights into the atomic world a reality by applying their own complex computer-assisted quantum-physics techniques of image calculation and interpretation.

The prototype aberration-corrected electron microscope became the forerunner of a new generation of commercial instruments, which were launched on the market in 2004. Today, all large electron optics manufacturers throughout the world fabricate instruments based on the new electron optics, which are either supplied by CEOS GmbH or constructed under licence. The microscopes are indispensable instruments in many areas of modern science and technology. The short wavelengths of the electron beams permit resolutions that are some ten thousand times greater than those of optical microscopes. In this way, electron microscopy helps us to understand how materials and components function on an atomic scale. They provide researchers with basic information on the structure of novel materials for improved data storage and processors, on the properties of high-performance materials for fuel cells, batteries, and solar cells, as well as on the functioning of biological macromolecules and the identification of viruses.

BBVA Foundation headquarters are in Bilbao. Since 2008, in collaboration with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), BBVA Foundation has awarded the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in eight categories, including biomedicine, environmental research, social sciences, and contemporary music. The total prize money is € 3.2 million.

Further information:

BBVA press release including video footage of interviews with the laureates

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