Physicists Charles Kane and Eugene Mele received the award on Tuesday Frontiers of Knowledge in the category of Basic Sciences, which grants the BBVA Foundation, in its eleventh edition. The jury awarded the two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania (USA) for the discovery in 2005 of topological insulators, "a new class of materials with extraordinary electronic properties", which behave as surface conductors and insulators in inside. The finding has opened new avenues in different fields, such as the generation of efficient electronic devices and the expansion of the development perspectives of quantum computers.
Kane (Urbana, Illinois, 1963) and Scrum (FIladelfia, Pennsylvania, 1950) have been working together for more than two decades. From the observation of graphene, a material that, as explained by the second, was "at a critical point" between the state of insulator and conductor, the two physicists put into discussion the conviction that in nature there were only these two conditions. And in the mid-2000s, they surprised the world with an article in which they predicted the existence of topological insulators, confirmed a short time later by the experimental route.
"Matter is made up of blocks of basic particles such as electrons and protons, and is governed by very simple rules, those of quantum mechanics," Kane said in a video recorded after the award was awarded. "When there are a lot of these particles, there may be phenomena that could never have been expected to arise," he continued. For that reason, the discovery of topological insulators allowed to bring to light "a new class of emerging phenomena that can govern the way in which matter conducts electricity," according to this physicist, who received his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The jury in charge of assigning the award in the category of Basic sciences (which includes the areas of physics, chemistry and mathematics), chaired by the Nobel Prize in Physics Theodor Hänsch, highlights in his report that the finding demonstrates "the existence of new ways of manipulating the properties of matter." This is because the topological insulators have special characteristics.
Among them, is the fact that the conductivity of its surface is robust, that is, it is not affected by the impurities and disturbances existing in conventional conductors, Ignacio Cirac, physicist and secretary of the jury, has maintained during the act of this Tuesday on which the winners were announced. Another, according to Kane, is that they can be deformed without losing conductivity.
The properties of topological insulators and the fact that there are different three-dimensional materials in nature with these qualities (as demonstrated in the last decade), open the doors to a wide variety of applications. In another video, Mele explained that, for example, they can be incorporated into electronic devices to make them more "fast and efficient". This type of use, he said, is what allows us to unite "scientific aspects based on fundamental and geometric ideas and the possibility of having real applications that involve these concepts".
But the most "interesting" and "shocking", the researcher continued, has yet to arrive. "With this new class of materials there may be new applications, impossible to imagine with the materials used today," he said. His partner – with whom he has published 28 scientific articles – added this Tuesday in connection with Skype that this area of physics is in full development. "In the last 15 years many people have been working in this field. There have been studies on real materials, there have been fundamental experiments and very important answers, "he explained.
One of the most desired perspectives by the scientific community specialized in physics is develop computers based on quantum computing. According to Kane, taking advantage of topological insulators is one of the possible ways to overcome this challenge. "I do not know if our generation will see it, but we could be surprised," he maintained. In his opinion, it is a challenge that involves answering many intermediate scientific questions. "We are at the dawn of a road that we do not know where it will take us," he underlined.
The Frontiers of Knowledge award is divided into eight categories: Basic Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics), Biology and Biomedicine, ICT, Ecology and Conservation Biology, Climate Change, Economics, Finance and Business Management, Humanities and Social Sciences, Music and Opera. According to the BBVA Foundation, these are areas "that serve the knowledge map of the 21st century".
The selection of the nominated candidates is done in collaboration with the Superior Council of Scientific Investigations (CSIC) Each award has an endowment of 400,000 euros, a diploma and an artistic symbol. This year, the awards ceremony will be held in Bilbao and not in Madrid.