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Taking Light to the Extreme
May 2010
SAN JOSE, Calif., May 18, 2010 — A European project that aims to be a gateway to new regimes in physics — and could lead to the creation of compact particle accelerators — was the focus of a talk Monday night by Gerard Mourou of the Ecole Polytechnique, France, during the CLEO Plenary Session at CLEO/QELS 2010.

Mourou invented chirped pulse amplification, which made ultrashort, high intensity laser pulse generation possible. The title of his presentation was "New Physics at Extreme Intensities of Light," and in it he explained how the ELI (Extreme Light Infrastructure) project, a collaboration of 13 countries, will do as much to advance nuclear physics as the laser, which turned 50 on May 16, did to advance atomic physics.

One such advance would be the ability to take particle accelerators, which are huge facilities, and shrink them down considerably.

"If we could put SLAC (National Accelerator Laboratory) onto a football field, we'd be very happy," Mourou said. SLAC, at two miles long, is the longest particle accelerator in the world.

The ELI project aims to achieve peak power of 200 PW, with energy per pulse of 2 kJ and a pulse duration of 10 fs, with a pulse intensity of 1025 W/cm2, or more than six orders of magnitude higher than today's laser intensity. Lasers that intense move from the realm of relativistic optics, where today's particle accelerators fit, into the ultrarelativistic regime where ions, electrons and photons are all moving at the same speed and those high-energy particles can be made to radiate and produce gamma rays, Mourou said.

ELI will be unique in that it will provide photons and particles with short and synchronous time structures in femtosecond, attosecond and zeptosecond regimes, Mourou said, and will allow the study of the structure of matter from atoms to the vacuum.

Mourou also provided a glimpse into what will come after nuclear physics: If intensities become three more orders of magnitude higher than ELI, or 10 29 cm2, nonlinear QED (Quantum Electrodynamic) processes become possible. In nonlinear QED, physicists will have the ability to break down and study the vacuum, which defines structures and properties of the laws of physics.

ELI will have three main branches based in Eastern Europe: the branch in the Czech Republic will be devoted to high energy beam science and to the development and use of dedicated beam lines with ultrashort pulses of high energy radiation and particles reaching almost the speed of light (100 GeV); the Hungary facility will explore attosecond laser science designed to conduct temporal investigation of electron dynamics in atoms, molecules, plasmas and solids at the attosecond scale; and the Romania branch will be dedicated to nuclear physics.

ELI is currently in the Prepatory Phase, which will last until November. It will be followed by a five-year construction phase.

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Flux per unit solid angle.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
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