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Modern views from an ancient land

17 Jun 2002

When Costas Fotakis helped to set up Crete's Institute for Electronic Structure and Lasers in 1983, Greek optics was starting from scratch. Michael Hatcher finds out how the institute has moved on and hears Fotakis' ideas about the future of European research.

From Opto & Laser Europe November 2001

Ancient Greece could, with some justification, claim to have been the birthplace of optical technology applications. Legend has it that when defending Syracuse (today's Sicily) against the advancing Romans, the mathematician Archimedes used a rudimetary concave mirror to focus the Sun's rays onto General Marcellus' wooden warships. The ships caught fire, sank, and the Roman fleet was scuttled.

But that was 2300 years ago. What of optics technology in modern Greece? If not yet quite a legend, Costas Fotakis, founder and now director of the Institute for Electronic Structure and Lasers (IESL) in Heraklion, Crete, is certainly one of Greek optics' best-known exponents.

Originally from Athens, Fotakis arrived in Crete in 1982 armed with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, UK. A year later, Greece's Foundation for Research and Technology (FORTH) was formed. Fotakis' IESL was one of its six component institutes.

At that time, Greek optics was in a poor state. "Everything had to be started from scratch," said Fotakis. "There was very limited technological work going on in optical sciences at that time, not only in Crete but in the whole country. This meant that we faced a huge challenge, but the links I had had with the Rutherford laboratory during my stay in the UK meant that I had some knowledge of what was needed to set up a laser centre and could apply that in Crete."

Fotakis set out with the belief that it was crucial to employ high-quality staff who would perform high-quality science. "It would not have been enough to be simply OK," said Fotakis. "[As a new centre] we needed excellence in basic science." This meant attracting both established top scientists and talented young researchers to Crete. Today, the IESL employs 190 staff.

Of the scientific breakthroughs that have followed, perhaps the most significant will turn out to be the generation of attosecond pulses. These were observed for the very first time at the IESL in 1999, opening up exciting prospects for the direct observation of ultrafast physical phenomena.

Fotakis is also very excited about a new technique called laser-induced forward transfer, which he says has been mastered at the IESL. It involves depositing tiny amounts of a material to make microscale and nanoscale devices. Fotakis sees great potential for the technique at the interface of laser technology and molecular biology, for example in depositing arrays of DNA.Much of the work now being put to use in art conservation has been adapted from laser materials processing applications in industry and biomedicine. Fotakis believes that the wider environment of the other five institutes that make up the FORTH centre increases the probability of successful technology transfer. "We have a good combination of expertise - there are lots of biologists, for example [FORTH is also home to the Institute for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology] - and this means that the laser people are not working in isolation."

Fotakis also ensures that the experience of those working under him is not limited to the laboratory: "Emphasis is placed on maintaining a balanced interplay between scientific, applied, technological and entrepreneurial activities," he explained.

To this end, he has taken concrete steps towards encouraging technology transfer and providing services to the private sector. Demonstration units have been established in both Crete's Science and Technology Park and the Laser Innovation Centre (LIC) in Athens. The LIC operates as a job-shop for materials processing applications and has led directly to the formation of a spin-off company called Axon Tec.

Fotakis has been instrumental in bringing laser technology to the attention of art conservationists and set up the first conference for lasers in the conservation of artwork (LACONA), held in Crete in 1995. Now held every two years, Paris played host to this year's fourth LACONA event, and Fotakis was one of the main attractions. Members of the IESL provided almost a quarter of the oral contributions.

Levels of attendance at LACONA have doubled since the first conference. Growing interest in the field has led to the formation of Art Innovation, a Netherlands-based company that distributes multispectral imaging systems developed at the IESL for art conservation diagnostics. Another spin-off company, called Forth Instruments, is now in the pipeline, and will develop more of the IESL's imaging systems in biomedicine and art conservation.

"There are parallels between the use of lasers in artwork conservation now and their use in medicine 10 or 15 years ago," Fotakis told OLE. Convincing conservationists to use laser technology is proving even more of a challenge than working with surgeons, however: "Conservationists like to feel that they have a direct input into their work, but using techniques like laser spectroscopy takes this away from them. We need to show them that the laser is simply a tool, like the scalpel, and leave the decision on how to use it to them."

His position as the IESL's director means that Fotakis plays a major part in European research. He stresses the importance of multinational EU research projects, as much in terms of their role in establishing a pan-European scientific culture as their importance to furthering science as a whole. "The participation of the IESL in EU programmes has been critical in shaping its current internationality," he said.

Fotakis also welcomes what he perceives as a shift in focus towards a greater awareness of the importance of fundamental science: "Earlier EU research and development policy placed too much emphasis on 'applied industrial research' and gave minimal support to fundamental science. This seriously limited the prospects for successful applications. However, in the forthcoming European Research Area this seems to be less of a worry."Fotakis now wants the IESL to build on its contribution to EU research by taking on a significant role in the "networks of excellence" that are being set up under the new European scheme. He is hoping for more changes to the European system, however: "The bureaucracy in the management of EU research projects is a great drawback, and it must be reduced dramatically for a more effective use of resources," he said.

Fotakis is also keen to see projects widening their geographical scope: "European research should stop being a closed system and open up to colleagues in America, Japan and other countries. A policy based on the promotion of scientific excellence is the best investment for the future."

The IESL's own investment for the future centres on its broad training programme. The institute has been selected by the EU for two Marie Curie training sites for PhD students, and offers courses and laboratory training in such fields as optoelectronics and applied molecular spectroscopy. Training in modern laser technology applications for medical doctors, conservationists and production scientists is also provided.

Appropriately, optical technology - in the more modern form of the laser - is once again coming to the assistance of Ancient Greece. Thanks in no small way to Fotakis, conservationists will soon be using lasers for the first time to restore parts of one of the best-known remnants of that age - the Parthenon in Athens. One imagines that Archimedes would approve.

Art Innovation www.art-innovation.nl

FORTH IESL www.iesl.forth.gr

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