18 Apr 2006
James Tyrrell visits the Aquitaine region in south-west France to give OLE readers a taste of what the "Route des Lasers" can offer the photonics industry.
The "Route des Lasers" runs from Bordeaux in the south-west of France out to the Arcachon Basin on the Atlantic coast and is a hotbed of activity in the field of photonics. Labelled as a "competitiveness cluster" and championed by ALPhA (see "Jargon buster"), the sector is home to Europe's largest laser project, Megajoule (LMJ), together with science parks, technology incubators, hi-tech platforms and firms ranging from start-ups to well established names.
The region looked to photonics to help fill an economic gap in the wake of falling military spending 15 years ago and as a way of diversifying Bordeaux's income from the wine trade. The city has long been seen as a strong educational centre with a rich background in optics. In fact, its alumni include former Coherent CEO, Bernard Couillaud.
Facilities within the Route des Lasers are very much interwoven and Bordeaux's science and technology university (UB1) plays an important role, connected through centres of excellence such as CPMOH and CELIA. CPMOH offers a range of taught courses in optics, including a masters option in conjunction with the University of Central Florida, US. With its expertise in pulsed laser systems, CELIA also helps attract postgraduates to the region.
CELIA has played a major part in the region's commercial success, thanks to its PALA offshoot. The ultrafast laser technology "platform" gives companies a low-risk opportunity to test ideas and has been a springboard for several firms in the region. In fact, its former director, François Salin, is now chief technology officer at Femlight, a Bordeaux start-up specializing in pulsed laser systems and high-speed optical instrumentation.
Engineers are encouraged to run with their ideas and are supported by Unitec's incubators, nurseries and science parks, which provide premises and advice on developing a business plan and attracting funding.
Turning from business to research, CELIA is currently the host of the ILP, the body in charge of providing scientific access to Europe's biggest laser facility (LMJ). Ultimately the ILP will relocate to the LMJ site 30 km outside of Bordeaux in time for Megajoule's opening at the end of 2010.
There is much more to the Route des Lasers than Megajoule alone, but the LMJ looms large on the Bordeaux landscape. Currently Europe's largest building site, the LMJ's gift to Bordeaux will be the investment and expertise that it attracts to the region.
When complete, the stadium-sized facility will house 240 laser beams, aligned to recreate the physical conditions found in nuclear weapons. Scientists estimate that for a few billionths of a second, the LMJ will be able to generate temperatures of up to 10 million degrees and pressures of over 1012 Pa.
France stopped actively testing nuclear weapons in 1996 and decided to proceed instead with a simulation-based approach. The LMJ is the main experimental tool in this programme, which relies on a process of modelling and calculation to maintain the country's nuclear credibility. It is a similar approach to the US stockpile stewardship program centred on the National Ignition Facility (NIF).
With building costs of €1.2 bn, the LMJ is a big investment for France. What's more, with an estimated annual running cost of €100 m, the operating budget over the LMJ's 30+ year lifespan will dwarf this figure. However, CEA sources say that the LMJ's simulation approach could bring savings of up to 60% compared with a conventional nuclear weapons testing programme.
The LMJ's target chamber measures 10 m in diameter and is formed from 140 tonnes of pure aluminium. It will require the world's largest crane to lower it into position this summer. The LMJ's laser bay building is as long as the Eiffel Tower and around 100 m wide. The project requires around 17,000 tonnes of steel and a vast amount concrete. Lorries exiting the site pass through a specially designed "truck bath" to ensure that the surrounding roads remain clean.
Unlike NIF, its 192 beam US counterpart, the LMJ has 240 beam lines, but will deliver the same energy (1.8 MJ) to the target chamber. The decision to opt for 240 as opposed to 192 beam lines gives the LMJ's designers an advantage in terms of damage threshold. What's more, components can be tested in advance on the LMJ's working eight beam prototype, dubbed LIL.
LIL not only helps the CEA validate technology intended for the full-scale LMJ, but it also serves as a prototype for the experiments themselves, helping to prepare the operators and test diagnostics. Additionally, LIL plays a vital role in estimating likely running costs of the LMJ and flags up maintenance issues. It will take a workforce of around 500-600 people to run the LMJ directly, but economists think that the facility could stimulate up to 4000 jobs in total for the region.
Benefits of the region
A lot of the benefits of locating in Bordeaux are neatly summed up by Alain Renaud, CEO of ES Technology. The firm makes custom laser systems for specialist marking and engraving applications. Clients range from French car maker Citroen through to a German supplier of bottles for Jean-Paul Gaultier perfume.
Renaud moved south to Bordeaux with his team from the French capital 12 years ago, frustrated by rising costs and congestion. "When we left Paris our costs went down by 20%," he told OLE. "My staff used to spend up to one hour commuting to work in the morning, whereas now the journey can take just five minutes."
He had concerns that customers would be reluctant to travel outside of Paris to visit the firm, but the lure of the famous wine region means that clients now look forward to invitations from Renaud and his team. Good rail and air links provide easy access both within France and internationally, especially from elsewhere in Europe.
ES Technology's speciality customers have tended to be close to home, however the firm has recently introduced a standard off-the-shelf laser marking system aimed at the export market. The unit features a 1 mJ pulsed ytterbium-based fibre laser from IPG Photonics and is assembled in-house.
Renaud feels confident that the marking device can be competitive outside of France, as production costs make up only a small fraction of the system's overall price. He explains that the firm has its eye on largely untapped markets in Brazil and India, where sales of laser-based manufacturing systems are now starting to take off. Currently, ES Technology has around 1% of the world market in laser marking, although in the past the company has focused predominantly on one-off specialist systems.
Other advantages of being based in Bordeaux include easy access to university facilities, such as CELIA, PALA and CPMOH, and a stable workforce. "In Paris, young engineers tend to move companies every two or three years," Renaud explained. "In Bordeaux it is different, they want to keep their job and when we hire people it is almost for life."
The quality of life is certainly a big draw card for the region. In fact, Amplitude Systemes CEO Eric Mottay has also made the switch from the French capital to Bordeaux.
Founded in 2002, Amplitude Systemes develops high average power (more than 2 W), diode pumped femtosecond amplifiers and oscillators. Applications include multi-photon microscopy, a powerful fluorescence-based imaging technique involving laser-excited molecules and proteins. One advantage of the company's high power devices is that the microscopy set-up can be configured to image at several locations at once by creating a matrix of beams. The higher energy also allows operators to look deeper into cells.
Other uses for the femtosecond devices include waveguide writing and creating nanostructures in transparent media. The unit's high intensity pulses also suit the ablation of material as part of a spectrometer set-up. The short duration of the laser pulse minimizes the diffusion of heat to the surrounding area, which helps to preserve the rest of the sample for analysis.
One idea being pursued at the University of Pau, France, is to use a pulsed laser set-up to ablate oyster shells. By analysing the shell layer-by-layer, the researchers hope to profile pollution over the creature's lifetime.
Amplitude Systemes is joined at its Unitec science park location by NovaLase, a developer of laser-based micromachining workstations, formed in 2001. NovaLase has also found a growing market for its wealth of optical knowledge and provides consulting services to neighbouring companies.
However, by no means all of Bordeaux's photonics firms are start-ups - industrial vision specialist i2S has been in business for 25 years. The company makes a range of imaging products from "photo finish" cameras seen at international sports events to stand-alone book scanners for electronic archiving. The latter has proved to be big business for the firm, attracting customers from the US and Asia.
Thanks to co-operation with a Swiss-based mechanical specialist, the firm's Digitizing Line of imagers can even automatically turn the book's pages between scans. Machines can reach scanning speeds of around 1500 pages per hour. Manual versions are also available and feature software that "cleans up" the archived image, digitally removing the operator's thumbs if a page has to be held down by hand.