Friday, May 01, 2009

Big lasers, big science, big questions

Leading optical scientists agree that research and industry stakeholders need to do more if Europe is to maximize the benefits from a planned new generation of high-power laser facilities. That was one of the headline messages from the "Emerging European Laser Facilities: Beyond Petawatt" workshop at the SPIE Europe conference in Prague, Czech Republic, last week.

Marking 50 years since the invention of the laser, the workshop was intended to open debate among senior figures from planned pan-European petawatt laser facilties (1015 W and beyond). Among the "blue-ribbon" initiatives under discussion were projects like HiPER (the High Power Laser Energy Research project), ELI (the Extreme Light Infrastructure), and the European X-Ray Laser project (XFEL).

"International infrastructures attract the best research scientists," Christian Kurrer, research programme officer at the European Commission, told delegates. "The infrastructures are well beyond the man-power and financial resources on a national level. This is why we need more collaborative efforts."

With access to unprecedented laser power and scientific expertise, it is easy to see why large-scale science facilities are attractive to users. In fact, some might argue that they are too good and that they will pull in users (and resources) simply because they can guarantee results where smaller national institutions can't. "Industries want facilities for reproducible, reliable results and 100% service," was the opinion of Mike Dunne, HiPER project director.

At the same time, workshop participants agreed that there's plenty of work to do to ensure that stakeholders in research and industry are in position to maximize their interactions with "big science". "They [the laser facilities] have the scientific experts and we bring the industrial methods where the networks can really make a difference," said Federico Canova of Amplitude Technologies, a French laser manufacturer.

New European Union member states might also question the economic returns on their investment in big science, not least because the planned locations for all of these big laser facilities are in western Europe. Kurrer, however, prefers to view such challenges as opportunities. "While distribution [of projects] may never be good, the key will be to break down the borders. Europe is all about talking to each other and overcoming barriers."

Europe's new generation of high-energy laser facilities form part of an ambitious big-science roadmap coordinated by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). The ESFRI roadmap covers capital and operational investments running to tens of billions of euros in strategic research areas like energy, environmental science and advanced materials.