ERC Grant for research project of van der Waals heterostructures

Christian Schönenberger, Director of the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) and Professor of Experimental Physics at the Department of Physics at the University of Basel, is to receive an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). With this impressive distinction, he will have access to 2.9 million Swiss francs of funding over the next five years for his research project into the superconductivity of van der Waals heterostructures. Christian Schönenberger is one of the few scientists whose groundbreaking research has received an ERC Advanced Grant for the second time.

Since his appointment as Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Basel in 1995, Christian Schönenberger has been working on questions related to nanoelectronics with a view to developing the unique properties of artificial atoms and molecules for applications in quantum information.

In the newly approved project, Christian Schönenberger and his team will focus on van der Waals heterostructures, in which various two-dimensional crystals ¬– each consisting of a single layer of atoms – are arranged in vertical stacks and held together by van der Waals forces.

Specific physical properties
There are now a number of such materials, all of which exhibit specific physical properties. Graphene, for example, is an excellent conductor of electricity, while boron nitride is an excellent insulator. There are superconducting van der Waals materials, as well as those in which an electron’s motion is coupled to the electron’s magnetism (or spin) in an effect known as spin–orbit coupling. There are also materials that exhibit spin-dependent optical absorption.

The ERC project now aims to combine several of these materials in such a way that new physical effects emerge. For example, it has been predicted that a combination of spin–orbit coupling, good electrical conductivity, and superconductivity could create a “topological state” that does not occur naturally. Rather, this would be produced “synthetically” under controlled conditions in a suitable stack of van der Waals materials.

These novel topological states are quantum states that exhibit particular stability and are especially suited to the use of quantum information. “The exciting thing about this project is that the combination of physical properties is not simply the sum of the individual properties,” explains Christian Schönenberger. “Since the atom-thin layers are so close to one another, completely new phenomena can occur. Each stack is potentially a new material with completely new properties. I want to get to the bottom of this with my team.”