Why a revolutionary laser ‘chirp’ won the Nobel Prize in Physics

How the 2018 Nobel for Physics is making cancer treatment, semiconductor manufacturing and more possible. How laser tech leader Thales helped accelerate sub-atomic particles in centimetres instead of kilometres. And how one led to the other. Read on.

One billionth of one billionth of a second may not be a long time.

But it may be time enough to peer inside individual atoms and even recreate the conditions of the Big Bang at the origin of our Universe.

That’s because, during that ‘attosecond’, the shortest and most intense laser beams ever created are revolutionizing both fundamental research in physics and making possible new practical laser applications in fields as diverse as cancer treatment and semiconductor manufacturing.

Chirped Pulse Amplification is a discovery that is so important that it earned French Professor Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, the Canadian Professor with whom he did the reseach,  the Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded in Stockholm on December 10, 2018.

Thales also will be represented at the ceremony; although Nobel Prizes in Physics are awarded to individuals rather than to companies, Thales earned a place in the Physics Nobel honour circle in the eyes of prizewinner Gérard Mourou. He aimed to recognise the longstanding laser research partnership between his laboratory and Thales, whose leading laser technology made the discovery possible.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this breakthrough.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this breakthrough” says Franck Leibreich, Thales Director of Laser Solutions who was invited by Gérard Mourou to the Nobel award ceremony, “In terms of research alone, it makes it much more practical to accelerate sub-atomic particles. So it opens the way to new discoveries in atomic physics that are keys to understanding the origin of the Universe”.

Professor Mourou himself has explained that quantum leap in efficiency, “We can accelerate particles with really stunning efficiency, so instead of using kilometres to do that, we could use a system with lasers which will require only centimetres”.

Applications in medicine

The extraordinary efficiency made possible by the new laser technique also can be applied to the world of medicine where particle acceleration is used to create isotopes for cancer therapy. That normally requires obtaining the radioactive material from distant nuclear reactors. Today, with the new laser ‘chirps’, accelerators could be made so compact that there could be one isotope for cancer treatment for each hospital.

Thales’s leadership in laser technologies today is a product of three decades of experience working with ninety research teams on all continents.  That includes the world’s most powerful laser facility, ELI-NP, being developed in Romania through an EU project for two 10 Peta Watt lasers.

And Thales lasers are not earth-bound; one is exploring Mars’ surface since 2012 aboard NASA’s Curiosity land rover and a second Mars probe to be launched in 2020 will use a Thales laser to try to detect signs of life.

Of course, the most down to earth applications are among the best known and these could be refined and improved enormously with the new discovery. That is because Chirped Pulse Amplification gives the laser an even greater boost in its capacity to separate matter with perfect precision and, where required, remove one component without disturbing the others.

Revolutionary advances

Lasers have brought revolutionary advances in a wide range of industrial and medical uses, from mammography to eye surgery for myopia and cataracts to semi-conductor wafer manufacturing to CD-ROM’s.

Tomorrow, many more advanced applications are planned. These include functions of future autonomous cars, treatment of radioactive waste, and removing space debris.

Franck Leibreich concludes, “It’s as gratifying for Thales to have contributed to this new technique as it is to work each day, as we have done for decades, with innovative researchers and academics, including with another Nobel Prize winner in Physics in 2007, Albert Fert. We are committed to continue to help them advance science and create with them the many benefits and applications that come from applying truly creative scientific discovery”.

It’s no wonder, then, that the prestigious scientific review Nature ranked Thales this year among the world’s top one hundred enterprises for the quality of its scientific research.