Cutting-edge laser center that was built a few years ago in Dolní Břežany just outside capital Prague is one of the best of its kind globally. To some degree, it could be compared to the famous CERN particle accelerator. It serves for primary research which does not aim for real-life implementation but the knowledge the researchers obtain still may eventually affect the future of humanity.
More than four years ago, a top-class international research center was built in Dolní Břežany with support from EU funds to conduct major laser-based scientific experiments. ELI (Extreme Light Infrastructure) Beamlines center employs some 350 people, out of which 200 are researchers. Approximately a third of the employees are foreign nationals. Most of the research is conducted using four extraordinary pulsed lasers with different combinations of technical parameters and configurations. It is not easy to explain what these laser do in simple terms for non-technical audience to understand their capabilities and benefits.
Just imagine, three of the installed lasers can achieve peak power close to the petawatt range (15 zeroes before the decimal point or a million billions of watts) during ultrashort, just femtoseconds long pulses (15 zeroes behind the decimal point). The output of the most powerful laser called Laser 4 (ATON) is an order of magnitude higher, peaking at 10 petawatts. However, it is not just a matter of short-term peak power or peak laser light intensity. ELI Beamlines lasers are unique also by an extremely high burst rates, i.e. how fast they can repeat the high-intensity pulses. In some cases, it is several dozen flashes per second. As regards the wavelength of the three petawatt lasers, it ranges approximately from 800 to 1050 nanometers (billionths of a meter), which means the light is positioned somewhere between the red section of the visible spectrum and the infrared band, i.e. invisible to the naked eye. The heart of one of the lasers (Laser 3 − HAPLS) comprises a large titanium-sapphire crystal that performs primary amplification of the laser light.
The research that the scientists conduct in the center is one of the largest by scope in Czech history. However, ELI Beamlines can serve hundreds of clients from around the world.
The lasers serve mainly as tools to create high-quality, varied secondary sources of charged particles (electrons and protons, or light ions generated e.g. by very short, compact accelerators) as well as secondary sources of coherent X-ray radiation or high-powered ultraviolet radiation. In most cases, they function as the first element in a chain of devices. The entire path is called a “beamline”.
It is expected that the research at ELI Beamlines can significantly push the boundaries of human knowledge in physics and astrophysics, life sciences, chemistry and material science, nanotechnology and engineering, X-ray optics and many other fields. The lasers have been constructed in collaboration with many scientists and engineers from other advanced global research centers (such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).
The research that the scientists conduct in the center is one of the largest by scope in Czech history. ELI Beamlines is ready to serve as an experimental center to hundreds of clients from around the world and the number may grow further over time. Any scientist or research team from anywhere in the world may submit their intended experiment to a transparent selection procedure. An international expert committee will assess the quality of the application and decide when the experiment will take place, if at all. (The current waiting time can be up to several months, depending on the nature of the experiment. The pipeline of requests exceeds the available machine time of the lasers two or three times.)
“The benefits of ELI for the Czech Republic are undisputable. The laser center in Dolní Břežany has become a major “center of gravity” attracting leading researchers from other countries while preventing a brain drain from the Czech Republic. It also drives development of other research and innovation capacities across the country,” says Dr. Georg Korn, head of the scientific experimental program at ELI Beamlines.
The resulting short, intensive flashes of X-ray radiation help researchers trace the progress of chemical reactions or protein movement and folding in the form of slow-motion films, and to perform cell diagnostics. Charged particle generation can help in cancer treatment research and in establishing the authenticity of works of art (paintings, sculptures). The ELI Beamlines facility serves also for fundamental research – primary laser beams allow for new types of experiments in the physics of solids, gases, plasma, and vacuum where they can even spark particle creation. All that may benefit research, for instance by providing better models of intrastellar processes, development of electronics, and material science. ELI Beamlines also collaborates with a number of institutions in the Czech Republic and Germany in the field of life sciences and the study of the effects of pharmaceuticals (pharmacokinetics). A large amount of experimental data is processed directly at ELI’s local supercomputing center, for other, there are links to various supercomputing clusters and clouds elsewhere in the world.
ELI Beamlines collaborates with various departments of Charles University in Prague, the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Czech Technical University in Prague (as part of ELI-CZ Consortium) as well as with numerous research centers and institutions from around the world (UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Poland, Japan, Russia, China). Dr. Korn previously worked at some of the world’s leading research centers, bringing a wealth of contacts which he leverages to foster international cooperation and to connect ELI Beamlines with other facilities globally.
Members of the STAR cluster and its wider ecosystem, too, including local companies, are interested in working with ELI Beamlines; and creation of spin-offs – affiliate innovation companies – has been in progress. In this respect, the Dolní Břežany center fares very well even in comparison with similarly positioned regions in France, Germany, and the USA.
The lasers in Dolní Břežany currently represent bleeding-edge technology on a global scale. However, they need continuous improvements and upgrades to stay ahead of global competition. As regards an increase in the light intensity and power of the lasers towards exawatts (three orders of magnitude higher output), we can probably expect an upgrade of the CPA amplifiers to further shorten the pulses. A significant time compression at the same energy level can result in equal effective intensity as in exawatt-class lasers but without the need to build a new, expensive primary laser with much greater output (peak power up to 300-500 petawatts).
One of the key research projects at ELI Beamlines focuses on nuclear fusion and involves collaboration with the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Dr. Korn believes that nuclear fusion will eventually be ignited by laser (inertial) fusion, approximately within the next 10 years. Researchers will be also trying to produce new nuclear fuel from existing nuclear waste using lasers to generate neutrons in various materials.
“We need to build smart factories, export them, and produce advanced, innovative products. There has been greater understanding for the role of science and technology lately. However, it is a long-term process as this tradition needs to be bred systematically over many decades,” Dr. Korn comments on the significance of ELI Beamlines and other such projects. He believes that it is key for the Czech Republic to become a high-tech, science friendly country.
The article was originally published in Region STAR magazine.