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  • Photonics with a French Twist

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2007
Along the Laser Highway in the region surrounding Bordeaux is a band of universities and photonics companies and the home of the Megajoule Laser project.

Kimberly Elsham, French Technology Press Office

An official competitiveness cluster since 2005, the Route des Lasers (or Laser Highway) operates similarly to a trade association. Located in the Aquitaine region of France, stretching from the city of Bordeaux to the Arcachon basin on the Atlantic coast, its aim is to accompany the installation of the Megajoule Laser project and to optimize and maximize the local economic and scientific spin-offs in optics and photonics. The cluster is supported and recognized by France’s public authorities.

The Megajoule Laser project is one of the engines of French national economic development in the field of optics. Started in 1996 by a program similar to the nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship in the US, the purpose and goals of the project parallel the objectives of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California — to demonstrate ignition by simulating fusion.


The Megajoule facility is shown here with its prototype, the Laser Integration Line, in the background. Four “laser bays” sit on either side of the central experimentation hall. Two adjacent laser bays will house 120 lasers for generation, and the 240 laser beams of the Megajoule are focused in the central sphere in the experimentation hall. Photo by Didier Fosse of Vertigo, provided courtesy of the French Atomic Energy Commission.

The Megajoule is a research instrument that produces 240 laser beams capable of reproducing the temperature and pressure conditions found on a microballoon on the sun. Scheduled for opening in late 2012, the simulation project’s main goal is to reproduce fusion in the lab. Other experiments that are scheduled to be conducted on the Megajoule site should contribute to fundamental research in astrophysics, to the study of materials, and to further research in optics and lasers.

Energetic experiments

Not surprisingly, the Megajoule is huge. Imagine a device about 16 stories tall and as long as the Eiffel Tower on its side. That titan will be housed in a facility with an area of about 40,000 sq m (430,000 sq ft). Larger than its US counterpart — the 192-beam National Ignition Facility — the Megajoule’s beams, using multipass (four) amplifiers, will deliver the same amount of energy (1.8 MJ) to the target chamber but give its designers an advantage in terms of damage threshold. According to Didier Besnard, director of the simulation program that encompasses the Megajoule project at France’s Atomic Energy Commission, the greater number of beams was simply the outcome of slightly different calculations during the design process, yet many other characteristics of the French and American projects are very similar.

The two countries have a 30-year history of collaboration in the field of high-powered lasers that includes joint research and development and sharing or exchanging of specific components produced by the projects’ respective partners. The Megajoule is a neodymium laser tripled into UV that requires both potassium dihydrogen phosphate (doubles frequency of infrared light to green light) and deuterated potassium dihydrogen phosphate (takes the green light frequency one step higher to create UV light).

The Boreas laser from Eolite Systems can provide sub-10-ns high-energy pulses at repetition rates up to 200 kHz. These lasers are designed for dry etching, flat panel display dicing, optical parametric oscillator pumping, silicon texturing and UV plastic marking.

The Megajoule’s potassium dihydrogen phosphate crystals are supplied by Saint-Gobain of Paris, which provides the French project with 60 × 60 × 60-cm raw crystals that are cut to 40 × 40-cm slabs for the doubling. Its deuterated potassium dihydrogen phosphate crystals come from Cleveland Crystals Inc. of Cleveland, which also supplies potassium dihydrogen phosphate and deuterated potassium dihydrogen phosphate for the National Ignition Facility project. Both projects shared the cost of 4500 amplifiers developed by glassmakers Hoya Corp. of Fremont, Calif., and Schott Glass Technologies of Duryea, Pa.

A key element of the simulation program is a Megajoule prototype at a 1:30 scale in terms of size and energy: The Laser Integration Line resides in Le Barp, France, just outside of Bordeaux. This facility has been open to researchers since December 2004 to validate the technological choices that scientists working on the Megajoule have made. The complete cost of the Megajoule construction project is €2.8 billion over 15 years, funded by France’s defense ministry.

The Aquitaine Lasers, Photonics and Applications Association in Bordeaux is also part of the Laser Highway. This trade association focuses on three areas: laser systems as a whole, with special emphasis on very high power lasers and on ultrashort pulse lasers; on laser imaging and metrology; and on innovative physics based on laser sources.

The strength of photonics in the region has roots in the education and training available at four area universities. Two of them — aptly named Bordeaux 1 University (UB1) and Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2 University (UB2) — not only have specialized courses in lasers and optics but also provide space for research and development.

Education in the region

UB1 has been providing in-service training for engineers and technicians for 30 years. It has incorporated in-depth training in lasers and their applications into its applied and theoretical physics master’s degree programs. The school hosts the Center for Molecular, Optical and Hertzian Physics and the Center for Intense Lasers and their Applications.

The NovaLase laser micromachining station incorporates various types of laser sources and positioning systems for multiple machining applications. Equipped with a YAG UV laser, the machine can perform photoablation for polymers and metals; equipped with a femtosecond laser for pure ablation, it can work hard on fragile materials such as glass and crystal.

UB2 has a long tradition in the field of biological and medical imaging. Over the past few years, it has developed a strong photonic component to its imaging courses, with the help of the Bordeaux Neuroscience Institute. Two experts in single-molecule live-cell imaging, Daniel Choquet of UB2 and Brahim Lounis, director of the Center for Molecular, Optical and Hertzian Physics, have influenced a collaboration between the two schools to form the Cellular Imaging Center. Located at the François Magendie Institute on the UB2 campus, the center has microscopes and workstations available to the scientific community and the public.

Creating jobs in photonics

The Laser Highway aims also to facilitate the creation of companies and jobs linked to these technologies and to bring the best-qualified engineers, researchers and technicians, among others, to the area to fill new positions. The cluster comprises about 500 jobs among approximately 50 companies.

The university-research-industry relationship has been a particular feature of the Aquitaine region for many years. Since 1998, the industrial application of some of the work conducted by the Center for Intense Lasers and their Applications has been handled by a technology transfer facility, the Aquitaine Laser Applications Center.

The area boasts laser manufacturers such as Cilas, Quantel, Sagem and Satelec. Cilas supplies the French Atomic Energy Commission with amplifiers and deformable mirrors. Quantel is developing modules to be placed between the Megajoule’s oscillators and amplification chains. Sagem’s defense security division is in charge of designing and implanting the Megajoule’s laser beam lines, specifically supplying special filters and their transport to the facility. Satelec is involved in the fields of laser imaging and medical devices. Its Acteon division produces electronic equipment for dentists as well as imaging equipment such as intraoral cameras and digital x-ray machines.

The Laser Highway also is home to younger companies not directly involved with the Megajoule project but that are taking full advantage of the area’s laser expertise and facilities to produce laser-related products for industrial and scientific applications. Amplitude Systèmes has several crystal-based ytterbium-doped lasers for micromachining and laser ablations; NovaLase develops laser micromachining systems using the latest technologies and innovative procedures by employing quick-impulse laser sources. Working in the Center for Intense Lasers and their Applications laboratory at UB1, the company also can integrate optic and laser systems for the assembly of small- to mid-size optomechanic industrial prototypes.

Eolite Systems (formerly Femlight), caters to the diversifying fiber laser market with its Boreas laser, which can cut to micrometer precision. Its short-pulse high-power Q-switched fiber lasers and nanosecond “rod type” fiber lasers are designed for applications ranging from cutting diamonds to marking serial numbers deep into car parts.

Spectrinov develops optoelectronic instrumentation for optical metrology and for physical and chemical analysis. In partnership with the Center for Molecular, Optical and Hertzian Physics laboratory, the company is developing a high-resolution optical spectrometer for laser metrology and for physical and chemical analysis.

The partners of the Laser Highway include the following: the European Union, the French government, the Aquitaine Regional Council, the Gironde County Council, the Bordeaux Urban Community, the Bordeaux City Hall, the Community of Communes of the Val de Leyre, the Communities of the Bassin d’Arcachon urban area, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Bordeaux, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bordeaux universities, the SEML Route des Lasers, the Bordeaux Region Development Agency, the Aquitaine Agency for Industrial Development and others.

Meet the author

Kimberly Elsham is press relations manager of the French Technology Press Office in Chicago; e-mail:

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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