Current nano research “made” in Saxony Anhalt

Prof. Dr. Stuart Parkin, Director of the Max Planck Institute for microstructure physics Halle (MPI)

Around two years ago, Prof. Stuart Parkin was named as Director of the Max Planck Institute for Microstructure physics in Halle, and appointed to a “Alexander von Humboldt professorship” at the Institute for Physics at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. In the interview, he looks back on the first two years, tells us about current projects and how he imagines the future at the research site of Halle, to the south of the German federal state of Saxony Anhalt.

Vision of awakening

Prof. Stuart Parkin’s office at the Max Planck Institute is colourful and clearly structured. The broad window front looks onto a green landscape. The desk is very tidy for a man with his tasks. The scientist, class of 1955, extends his hand in greeting, in a friendly and open way, sits down at the conference table, and even asks for the first question. Wasting time does not seem to be his thing.

Parkin explains: “The institute is in a reorientation phase. Our new concept plans a more thematically integrated institute. Until now, the Max Planck Institute Halle has had various departments with different focuses. But in future, I hope, we will have an institute, whose departments complement each other, and work together, and can therefore tackle greater challenges. We need even more cooperation with universities, and international partners in science and industry.“

A stroke of luck for Halle

The fact that the top British researcher now lives and researches in Middle German Halle an der Saale, is perhaps only explained at second glance, because he is married to the renowned German materials scientist Prof. Dr. Claudia Felser. Parkin worked for the research centre of IBM in San Jose, in sunny California for a long time, where he developed ground-breaking concepts for intelligent data storage. The list of his distinctions and honorary doctorates is remarkable. But, this is not what drives the scientist. Parkin says: ”The Max Planck Society is oriented towards basic research, but at the same time, transforming innovative ideas into applications is just as important to me. In a period of 5 to 10 years, applications should be developed, that are beneficial to society. That is my aim for the Halle site.“

The Max Planck Institute Halle, he continues, is famous for its work in electron microscopy. This technology is of central importance in various projects by Parkin, e.g. when investigating atomically thin layers, with new features, which do not occur in nature.

PAPAYA and Humboldt

“We have developed an innovative multiple chamber coating system (PAPAYA). Here, we can prepare artificially coated layers of atoms, which do not occur in nature, and have completely new characteristics.

Within a year, we have shown that we can produce tailor made layers. Furthermore, we have integrated a highly specialised scanning tunnelling microscope, with which we could characterise the layers with the thickness of an atom“, explains Prof. Parkin. A further system serves to prepare new materials, e.g. for super conductors. These should also work at room temperature, and not only at low temperatures, as was previously the case.

With Germany’s most valuable international research prize – the Alexander-von-Humboldt-professorship – not only did an excellent scientist come to Halle, but also a subsidy of €5 million over 5 years. This subsidy is well spent at the Max Planck Institute in the city on the Saale, and on Prof. Parkin: “With the Humboldt professorship, I was able to build up the “International Centre for Nano Systems” (ICNS). It should give excellent scientists, doctoral candidates and students the opportunity, to use the unique scientific environment of the Max Planck Institute Halle and the research location of Halle, to work together on outstanding issues in nanotechnology. These days, you simply need the best to be competitive, and this also includes close collaboration on a national and international level. We want to carry out foundation research here, to get to the limits of completely new knowledge, and at the same time take a look at how we can translate this new knowledge and discoveries into practical applications, and technologies for the economy and society.

Alone is so yesterday

So it is not surprising, that the top researcher not only practises the “we” in his conversations, but also in his work. “No-one can do it alone these days, no city, no region and no state.“ When questioned on the latter, he talks about a remarkable subsidy from the state of Saxony Anhalt. “We are currently using the subsidy, to realise the layer deposit systems already described, and to create further apparatus.” In discussions with representatives of city and state, it has become clear again and again, how much people are interested in technology transfer.

“We will build on this link with the city of Halle, and also the state of Saxony Anhalt, in the area of nanotechnology. Innovations are the drive for social further development. At the end of the year the “International Max Planck Research School” will start. It should attract the best graduates, doctoral candidates and young researchers to Halle, in order to support us in strengthening, and improving visibility of the location. That is a structured doctoral programme lasting six years.”

Even when you ask the top researcher about his digital future, a certain form of sense of community is reflected. Prof. Parkin is sure, that above all, access to knowledge will change, whereby the vast quantities of data would have to be processed and networked in an even more intelligent way: “Take for example science. Almost all scientific work and research is digitally available, and accessible to everyone. This means that other people can benefit from the experience and knowledge faster, and this accelerates scientific findings.“

Talking of faster

A quick glance from Prof. Parkin signals his astonishment, that he answered all the questions in half of the planned interview time. Then, he tells me about his wife, who works as the Director of the Max Planck Institute for chemical physics of solids in Dresden, that he is building a house in Halle, because he has found the perfect architects for his ideas, and that he feels welcome in Halle.

“Ok? That‘s good!“ he says by way of thanks, shakes my hand in farewell, and goes back to work without further ado.