BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award 2013: Harald Rose, Maximilian Haider and Knut Urban

Electron microscopy pioneers win prestigious Frontiers of Knowledge Award in basic sciences. SALVE members among the recipients.

For their groundbreaking research in the field of modern electron microscopy, three physicians from Germany, who have already received the Wolf Prize in 2011, one of the most prestigious prizes in physics, were now awarded the BBVA Foundation’s Frontiers of Knowledge Award. The recipients are physics professor and Maximilian Haider (CEOS GmbH Heidelberg, SALVE member), Harald Rose (University of Ulm, SALVE member) and Knut Urban (Research Centre Jülich), who won the award in the basic sciences category, which is endowed with a prize money of 400,000 Euro, funded by Spanish finance group Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA. The award honours the three researchers for developing the modern aberration-corrected electron microscope. This new generation of aberration-corrected electron microscopes allows subatomic-resolution images, making atomic structures in the picometre range visible (one picometre is one billionth of a millimetre). The highly refined imaging procedure has become a key technology for material sciences as well as basic research in natural science, and even indispensable in the field of nano-research.

In the early 1990s, the three physicians had joined forces to research how to make imaging errors in electron optics a thing of the past. Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and the German Research Foundation DFG, they in 1997, after years of intensive joint research, achieved what most researchers in their field had not thought possible: They developed a prototype of an aberration-corrected electron microscope that substantially improved the resolution of electron optic images. The theoretical foundation for the prototype was Harald Rose’s approach to the correction of spherical aberrations and colour aberrations of electron lenses. At that time, the physician was a professor at the Institute of Applied Physics of the Technical University of Darmstadt; today, he holds a Carl Zeiss-funded Senior Professorship at the University of Ulm. The centrepiece of his approach to the correction of spherical aberrations is magnetic multipoles that are later overlapped with electrostatic multipoles in order to correct colour aberrations at the same time. The full correction system acts somewhat like prescription glasses for the "near-/far-sighted" electron lenses.

In their laudation, the high-profile international jury, which included Nobel Prize laureate Theodor Hänsch, as well as other renowned scientists from Stanford, Oxford, ETH Zürich and Cornell University, stresses the research team’s outstanding perseverance and tenacity. At a time when no other researchers in the field believed it was even possible to further improve the resolution of electron microscopes and the US had even ceased to fund research in the area, Haider, Rose and Urban persevered. “Our risky project was eventually saved by the Volkswagen Foundation, which also funds research that is not necessarily all that close to practical developments,“ says Knut Urban from Research Centre Jülich. “Also, there was no physical law ruling out our solution to the problem,“ Professor Rose from the University of Ulm adds with a smile.

At a conference also attended by Haider and Urban, Rose had presented his theoretical approach for the correction of spherical aberrations in 1989. "Within five minutes I had an idea for a solution, but would never have thought that it would take me another twenty years to catch up with these five minutes," the 78-year-old scientist, who was born in Bremen, marvels today. "Like my colleagues, I was rather surprised to win that award. We are all very happy about it," the physician explained. "Science requires dedication, team work and a lot of tenacity. The history of aberration-corrected electron microscopy shows the need for long-term research funding that also allows leeway for failures, as it was also the previous failures that paved the way for the eventual success," Rose emphasises.

Contrary to light microscopes, electron microscopes do not show most objects directly, but in “encoded” form, since imaging objects with electrons is subject to the laws of quantum physics. Besides Harald Rose’s theoretical approach to correcting imaging aberrations in electron optics, further steps were therefore required to improve the resolution. And it was the complex computer-assisted and quantum-physics-based image calculation and interpretation technology developed by Knut Urban and his colleagues at Research Centre Jülich that made these hitherto unknown insights into the world of atoms possible. Maximilian Haider, Honorary Professor at the KIT, then Electron Microscopy Director at the EMBL in Heidelberg, eventually realised the device and founded a company producing aberration-corrected electron microscopes - CEOS GmbH. This new generation of high-resolution, aberration-corrected devices is able to observe atomic shifts smaller than a tenth of one atomic radius. “That means we cannot only observe individual atoms, but also their movements and interactions with a precision hitherto unknown,” the developers explain. The Heidelberg-based company manufactured over 90% of the more than 500 new generation devices used at universities and in research laboratories today. The first of these devices in commercial use has been employed by the University of Ulm since 2005, at the Central Electron Microscopy Institute, where Harald Rose has been holding a Carl Zeiss-funded Senior Research Professorship since 2010. Ute Kaiser from Electron Microscopy in Material Sciences, who strove to get both this device and later the renowned physician Rose himself to the University of Ulm, embraces the fact that the research team was awarded this prestigious prize: “We are of course very happy for Harald Rose and his colleagues Haider and Urban. Last but not least since this means a huge appreciation for an important field of research, to which the University of Ulm is also very committed.“

The laureates
Harald Rose
Harald Rose, born in Bremen in 1935, has been holding a Carl Zeiss-funded Senior Research Professorship at the Central Electron Microscopy Institute of the University of Ulm since 2010. He studied physics at the Technical University of Darmstadt and received his PhD in physics there; after several research stays in the US, he worked as a lecturer in Darmstadt between 1971 and 1975 and as a Professor at the Institute of Applied Physics from 1980 to 2000. His later international career included the Cornell University and Berkeley as well as the Jiatong University Xian in China.

Maximilian Haider
Maximilian Haider, born in Austria in 1950, is the founder and Director of CEOS, Heidelberg - the company that emerged from the project. Worldwide, more than 500 200 microscopes based on the groundbreaking electron optics concept are used at universities and in research laboratories; more than 90% of them were manufactured by CEOS. Since 2008, Maximilian Haider has been Honorary Professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and member of its Electron Microscopy Laboratory. (source: KIT)

Knut Urban
Physicist Knut Urban was head of the Jülich Institute of Microstructure Research - today part of the Peter Grünberg Institute - and held a chair for experimental physics at RWTH Aachen University from 1987 to 2011. He was also President of the German Physical Society (DPG) from 2004 to 2006. He is also the first JARA senior professor, a new position established by RWTH Aachen University and Jülich Research Centre. (source: Research Centre Jülich)

Website of the BBVA foundation

Scientific basics
See also the scientific basics of this frontiers of knowledge award.