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Bart van Wees - Laureate NWO Spinoza Prize 2016

Fascination for electrons

Bart van Wees, Professor of Physics of Nanodevices at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials of the University of Groningen, is one of the four recipients of this year’s NWO Spinoza Prize, the highest distinction in Dutch academia. His research stems from his curiosity about the behaviour of electrons inside new materials, but he has always had at least half an eye on practical applications.

The objects that Van Wees studies are usually only visible under an electron microscope: he builds nanodevices, electronic circuits with a core that consists of layers just one atom thick. At this scale, the laws of quantum mechanics dominate. ‘This subject already intrigued me when I was studying physics in Delft’, says Van Wees in his office in the physics and chemistry building on the Zernike Campus, where he has been working since his transfer from the Delft University of Technology.

Electrons continue to surprise

‘At the time, I could not choose between regular physics and applied physics. I ended up doing my final-year project with Professor Hans Mooij, who was making tiny devices to study superconductivity.’  It was there that his fascination with electron behaviour was born. You would assume that physicists knew everything about electrons by now, but their behaviour inside all sorts of materials remains unpredictable. ‘We can always explain things afterwards, but surprises continue to occur’, says Van Wees.

Better understanding

After his transfer to the Zernike Institute of Advanced Materials in Groningen, his attention soon shifted to a new field, spintronics, which describes a quantum mechanical property of electrons, their ‘spin’. This can be best imagined by picturing electrons as small spheres spinning around their own axis, causing them to behave like small compass needles. This spin can assume two values: ‘up’ or ‘down’, which makes it suitable, in principle, for storing or transporting information.

His knowledge of electron transport has enabled Van Wees to design systems that easily allow for spin transport, and the new insights thus gained have furthered our understanding of spin transport. ‘During that first period, there was a certain magic to parts of the field; things were working, but we did not know how.’

Original experiments with graphene

The discovery of graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon that is an extremely good conductor of both electricity and heat, spurred further innovation. Spin transport inside graphene proved to offer numerous possibilities, and, again, Van Wees is furthering our understanding. ‘What do the electrons do then, and how can we use quantum physics to influence their properties? This is what I am trying to find out about with original experiments; it will increase our level of understanding.’ Eventually, this type of research might lead to even smaller transistors.

‘A combination of knowledge and intuition, is what appeals to me.’

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Hot topic or hot air?

Students who obtain a Master’s of doctoral degree in Van Wees’s lab have an understanding of technology and the associated physics. ‘And they should be able to distinguish between genuinely hot topics and hot air’, Van Wees adds. He stresses that it is also in society’s interest that academics are capable of giving advice and separating sense from nonsense.

Affinity with pioneers

As a designer of nanodevices, Van Wees feels an affinity with the pioneers of technology. He talks with great enthusiasm about the galleries at the Science Museum in London. ‘They include work by the builders of the first generation of computers, or the first steam engines. How they managed to do that, often through a combination of knowledge and intuition, is what appeals to me.’

Exploring new territory

The Spinoza Prize will enable Bart van Wees to keep on pioneering. Besides the honour of receiving the prize, he can spend EUR 2.5 million on research of his choice. He still needs to have a good think about how he will spend the money: ‘I could use it for my current research, but I will certainly use some of it to explore new territory too.’

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Last modified:31 March 2020 11.13 a.m.
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