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Nobel Prize winner transforms laser fortunes

Nobel Prize winner transforms laser fortunes

In 2018, Professor Donna Strickland became the first woman in 55 years to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics – and only the third in history – for her work on high-intensity lasers.

With the invention of lasers, the intensity of a light wave increased which has led to the observation of new phenomena such as violet light coming out when red light went into a material. Professor Strickland and colleague Gérard Mourou then developed a technique, known as chirped pulse amplification (CPA), where the intensity increased again by more than a factor of a 1,000.

This technique and new level of understanding about laser-matter interactions has led to developments in healthcare, such as laser eye surgery, and advanced manufacturing, including the production of mobile phones.  

The opportunity this creates has been integral to the development of the Extreme Photonics Application Centre (EPAC), announced today, at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

On the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Professor Strickland is hosting a special lecture at RAL. She told UKRI: “Science education helps develop skills in problem solving and critical thinking necessary to address some of the world’s biggest challenges.

“When we encourage girls and women to engage with science, they bring more diversity to science and fresh perspectives that can only help in finding innovative solutions.”

We ask Prof. John Collier, Director of STFC’s Central Laser Facility, about her work and its influence:

Why is Professor Strickland’s work so inspiring?

In laser science, Professor Strickland and Gérard Mourou’s work really was a major invention. Before they developed CPA, there was a fundamental limit to the power of lasers.  The science space that was accessible by lasers at that point had been exhausted and there was no prospect of increasing the power of the laser.

Prof Strickland’s technique overcame that limit and it took us into a completely new territory.  All these weird and wonderful things started happening as a result that nobody really understood at that time - it was a really rich transformation.

For us, it led to major investment and diversification in our department, which in the late 1980s been recommended for closure. In 1998 we started building the VulcanPetawatt laser facility, which then became highest power laser in the in the world for nearly a decade. Her findings are fundamental to our new Extreme Photonics Application Centre we are now constructing.

What are the applications of her work?

Today we have five major facilities here and all but one of those are based on her CPA technique. We are applying it to everything from the fundamental physics of stars to life sciences and micromachining.

Precision laser engineering is now used in everything from fuel injectors to the manufacture of flat-panel televisions. Crucially, it can be used by table-top sized lasers which means the potential of its application is vast.

What are the next potential developments in the super-laser space?

We are building EPAC to try and push forward the potential of these super lasers in both scientific and ‘real world’ applications. If you take a laser pulse and focus it on a specific target it can act like a miniature accelerator. These miniature accelerators are potentially revolutionary.

We will be able to develop new applications using the radiation that is produced by these accelerators for carrying out penetrative imaging and produce 3D reconstructions of complex objects hundreds of times faster than conventional systems. It will also provide insights into the nature of the quantum vacuum.

How important is it to you to shine a light on the work of Professor Strickland and foster inclusivity in your work?

I know that for Prof Strickland, she has never felt her gender has been an issue in her career but I also know that’s not true for everyone. Diversity is so important, particularly in the science fields we operate  in – they don’t have an equal representation of women and having iconic figures such as Prof Strickland is really important. This is not just for people who are already working in the space, but people thinking of forging a career in science..

For me it is vital that we raise the profile of a diverse range of people to encourage everyone realise the importance of having as broad a representation in every walk of life.