Charles Kane and Eugene Mele of Penn’s Department of Physics & Astronomy have been recognized by the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) Foundation for their work on topological insulators. They share the 11th BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Basic Sciences category for their discovery of materials with the “extraordinary property” of being both insulators and conductors.
The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards are intended to recognize excellence in basic research and was awarded this year to Kane and Mele “for their discovery of topological insulators, a new class of materials with extraordinary electronic properties—they behave as conductors on the surface, but as insulators in the interior,” the selection committee says.
Kane and Mele are longstanding collaborators who share the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for this research. The unexpected discovery of topological insulators was made possible through early studies of graphene, a material that had the peculiar property of being neither a conductor nor an insulator of electric charge. This finding went against the theory that materials had to be either conducting or insulating. “Kane and Mele predicted in 2005 that this simple classification fails for a new class of materials called topological insulators, whose existence was experimentally confirmed soon thereafter,” the award selection committee says.
Shortly after Kane and Mele predicted their existence in 2005, a number of materials were tested and found to be topological insulators. Ongoing research on the properties and potential applications of these materials, including the development of quantum computers and the miniaturization of electrical components without increased risk of over-heating, continues to be a groundbreaking area of study in applied physics research.
“What drives me is the beauty of what nature can do,” says Kane. “Certainly major technical applications could emerge from this, but what fascinates me is discovering what nature can do with these seemingly simple building blocks. This topic arose out of curiosity about how matter could arrange itself. At the time, we had no idea it was going to develop into such a broad enterprise.”
Mele agrees. “What is so nice about this work is that the underlying thinking is very mathematical; elegant, simple and pretty. And that fusion of an underlying mathematical, simple structure and its connection with things that have a real-world technical pay-off is what we are striving for in science.”
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in science, art, and the humanities. Kane and Mele will split the award’s €400,000 prize that will be presented at a formal ceremony in Bilbao, Spain, on June 18th.