HZB-Award for Technology Transfer 2019: A chip with many application options

Happy winners of the 2019 Technology Transfer Prize: Prof. Jens Anders and Prof. Klaus Lips. © HZB/Nadine Zilliges

© HZB/Nadine Zilliges

Klaus Lips (HZB) and Jens Anders (Univ. of Stuttgart) have won the 2019 HZB Technology Transfer Prize for their electron spin resonance chip that will revolutionise spin analysis (“EPR On A Chip - Eine Revolution in der spinbasierten Analytik“).

The potential of this innovation convinced the jury. The industrial advisor concluded: "We found the characteristics of the device to be very impressive. It is exactly what industry needs.” Their microchip – just a few square millimetres in size – was chosen from among the eleven candidate projects.

The Technology Transfer Prize honours the best HZB Innovation Project. It is accompanied by 5,000 Euros in prize money.

“It is super that the representatives from industry see the same potential that we scientists see”, says Anders. The HZB Technology Transfer Prize is great confirmation for us and boosts our motivation to continue.” 

“EPR-ON-A-CHIP has many avenues of application, such as energy research and medical diagnostic procedures”, explains Lips. “The operating principle is the same as that of an automobile’s beeping system while backing up. There is a chip located on the bumper and transmits radar signals. We can utilise the same kind of radar signals to scan cancer, for example.”

EPR-ON-A-CHIP has just received 6.7 million Euros in grants from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

What is EPR-ON-A-CHIP?

By exciting electron spins in materials, the detected electron spin resonances (EPR) provide detailed information about the internal structure of materials right down to sub-atomic levels. EPR spectroscopy is an important instrument in biophysics, chemistry, and medical diagnostic procedures, but recently has also been employed in research on energy materials like catalysts, battery electrodes, and the components of solar cells. (More info on EPR-ON-A-CHIP)

In the final round of the competition, EPR-ON-A-CHIP was selected from among four other tough competitors:

  • ALL-IN-ONE – A sample holder as a platform for macromolecule crystallography (“ALL-IN-ONE – Ein Probenhalter als Plattform für makromolekulare Kristallographie“) – from Dr. Christian Feiler
  • A project on foamed metal for light-weight construction (“ZELLULARES METALL FÜR DEN LEICHTBAU“) through the spin-off company pohltec metalfoam GmbH - Dr. Francisco Garcia-Moreno
  • Development & transfer of amorphous-silicon (a-Si) solar-cell technology for transparent photovoltaic components in the construction industry („A-SI SOLARZELLEN-TECHNOLOGIE - Development & Transfer für transparente PV-Bauelemente“) - Prof. Bernd Stannowski
  • “HIGHLY EFFICIENT, LOW-COST PEROVSKITE TANDEM SOLAR CELLS - Universal and Robust Hole-Contacts by Self-Assembled Monolayers (SAMs)” - Amran Al-Ashouri

INTERVIEW with Prof. Klaus Lips & Prof. Jens Anders

“The Technology Transfer Prize boosts our motivation to continue.”

A microchip with the potential to detect cancer, control manufacturing processes, and contribute to energy research has won this year’s Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin Technology Transfer Prize. The inventors of EPR-ON-A-CHIP, Professor of Physics Klaus Lips from the HZB Institute for Nanospectroscopy and Professor of Engineering Sciences Jens Anders from the University of Stuttgart, are pleased about the 5,000 Euro prize. The most important thing to both of them, however, is what this prize means.

Are you surprised that you have received the prize?
Lips: “Absolutely! There were really terrific projects in the final selection round, so we are quite pleased. Admittedly, we do not yet have any companies for realising the many potential applications. But I see an enormous future for our project.”

You are receiving 6.7 million Euros in research grants from German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).
Anders: “Yes, there is simply huge potential. It is super that representatives from industry see the same potential that we scientists see. The HZB Technology Transfer Prize is great confirmation for us and boosts our motivation to continue.”

Your invention – what is it, exactly?
Lips: “We are able to use a tiny device – we are speaking of square millimetres in size – to detect conditions that can be extremely important for health, for solar cells, and for storage applications. We are also able to use the device to control processes in manufacturing, for example. And the sensor can even be used to detect whether foodstuffs are still good.”

What does the sensor consist of?
Anders: “The sensor is a microchip. It is fabricated with the same silicon wafer processes used for making the CPU of a computer. We equip the chip with a metal ring that picks up and converts a tiny magnetic signal from the excited states of atoms into a larger electrical signal voltage and measures it. The great feature about the invention is that the device is now contained in a microchip, when before it was several cubic meters in size and weighed a tonne. Now the device can be used as a sensing probe – such as in medical practices.”

What would this kind of application look like for a physician?
Lips: “Imagine there was a potentially cancerous abnormalcy evident in the skin, for example. If I have a liver spot or birthmark, I need to determine if it is malignant or not. One can visually ascertain a lot from the colour and shape. But if I really want to know, I need to excise it and submit it for a laboratory pathology test. And the idea is now that the EPR-ON-A-CHIP can determine whether a birthmark is malignant or benign.”

How does that work?
Lips: “The principle is the same as that of the beeping while backing up in an automobile. There is a chip that sits on the bumper and transmits radar signals. We can utilise the same kind of radar signals to scan cancer, for example. It would work similarly for skin damage from sunburn.”

How did you come up with your invention?
Anders: “We did that jointly. Klaus is a physicist and knows about EPR states and how you detect them in the lab. I am an engineer and familiar with the applications side. So our backgrounds complemented one another’s.”

Lips: “The problem in physics was how to miniaturise everything. We wanted to detect the input signals directly on the chip, but we could only fabricate circuits for these high frequencies using gallium arsenide semiconductors. Or that is what we thought, at least. We couldn't make any progress because we lacked expertise. A year later I heard Jens give a lecture. He explained that one can perform this kind of miniaturisation in silicon. I almost fell off my chair. I went to him immediately and said that we’ve got to work together.”

And subsequently?
We made enough progress within twenty-four months that we could write up a project grant application. We made it through that process and will now receive 6.7 million Euros from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Astonishing! This project involves energy applications.”

And what comes next?
Anders: “We have company that is analysing the market potential. We want to address and supply multiple markets with the method we develop – nine in total. We are convinced that the technology will deliver great capabilities. Medical applications are close to our hearts because they have an impact on everyone. However, monitoring the aging processes in batteries is also conceivable. So we are starting first with energy research. In this area, we will be advancing the technological readiness of the sensor towards product maturity – and then we hope to address additional application areas.”

Interviewer: Anja Mia Neumann.

ane