The Attolab Equipex, funded by the French National Research Agency's Investments of the Future program for 2011, was inaugurated on Wednesday, February 22. This platform will shed light on ultrashort physical and chemical phenomena.
A “smithery for high-speed optics.” That's how Lionel Poisson, a researcher at the Lasers, Interactions, and DYnamics Laboratory (LIDYL, CEA/CNRS), presents the Attolab, a cutting-edge facility inaugurated on February 22. The Attolab’s lasers are accurate enough to study extremely minute and brief phenomena, such as the rapid movements within matter.
The high-tech instruments are able to provide very short and intense pulses of light with perfect control over their duration, size and temporal shape. Such accuracy will be useful in exploring many disciplines, from chemistry (monitoring chemical reactions) to next-generation electronics to medicine.
Tools of extreme precision
By producing a kind of "ultrafast stroboscopy", the lasers make it possible to observe phenomena at the frontiers of knowledge in physics. How much time passes between the moment when a beam of light strikes an atom and the moment when that atom releases an electron? Probably a few attoseconds—a few billionths of a billionth of a second. That's the scale that Attolab finally renders observable.
The new facility is run jointly by eight institutions, seven of which are members or partners of Université Paris-Saclay (CNRS, CEA, UPSud, IOGS, ENSTA ParisTech, École polytechnique and Synchrotron SOLEIL), and has few equivalents worldwide. "This is a real achievement for the whole of Université Paris-Saclay," says Pascal Monot, one of the heads of Attolab. The Equipex brings together unique expertise, numerous physicists and cutting-edge tools in connection with industrial partners.
It is this close collaboration with industry, including market leaders in attosecond technology Thalès and Amplitude Technologies, which LIDYL’s director Philippe Martin chose to highlight during the inauguration. He praised a facility where "the most fundamental research in laser science meets the most advanced technology." As High Commissioner for Atomic Energy Yves Bréchet put it, "Attolab means exploring the atom with a light scalpel."
Advanced optics, manufactured at IOGS
To manipulate the Attolab lasers, researchers use mirrors manufactured at Institut d’Optique Graduate School (IOGS). This is because the mirrors require specific treatments, special coatings and ultra-precise polishing to achieve the best performance. "It's a real craft," says Franck Delmotte, lecturer at IOGS. Consisting of a stack of very thin layers, these mirrors serve to amplify the reflection of a light beam—kind of the opposite of the anti-reflective coatings of commercial eyeglasses. Without this, the extremely short flashes of light would be destroyed at the first reflection and the physicists couldn't use them. But "our job is just to make great images," Delmotte claims with a smile; he leaves the interpretation of these images to Attolab's specialists.