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The appliance of science

17 Jun 2002

The Lund Laser Centre in Sweden is one of Europe's leading institutes for the environmental, medical and research applications of lasers. Its director, Sune Svanberg, talks to Michael Hatcher about the secrets of the centre's success.

From Opto & Laser Europe September 2001

Sune Svanberg is a scientist with a conscience. As head of the Lund Laser Centre and Lund University's atomic physics department, Sweden, Svanberg has an infectious enthusiasm for his field. However, although he is involved with laser applications ranging from photodynamic therapy to monitoring volcanic gas emissions, he refuses to become involved with military projects.

The first member of his farming family to attend university, Svanberg went on to work with laser pioneers Art Schawlow and Ted Hänsch at Stanford University in California, US. He remembers this period in his life with affection: "Stanford is a great place. I spent two summers there with Art and Ted. Art was a great person, very friendly and humble. I miss him a lot." Despite the attractions of the West Coast, Svanberg says that the opportunity to set up the Lund facility in Sweden was too good a chance to miss. He was appointed to direct the atomic physics division in 1980, but it was some time before serious laser applications began to emerge.

"We were probably the first Scandinavian group to do serious laser spectroscopy," Svanberg commented. "Starting with basic physics - my first 10 years in science had absolutely no applications - we expanded into environmental monitoring, combustion diagnostics and later into medicine.

"We set up some umbrella organizations, such as the combustion centre, to make sure that our work on laser spectroscopy, looking at things like flames and explosions, interacted well with mechanical engineering and industry. However, the initial science was critical - good applications come from good basic research."

Svanberg says that this is because many apparently very different applications rely on the same fundamental ideas. "Whether you are examining tumours hidden in the breast, or analysing sulphur dioxide in Mount Etna's plume, you are technically doing the same thing - time-resolved laser spectroscopy in scattering media."

When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, the Lund centre was formally inaugurated as a large-scale facility. Since then, around 60 groups have come to Lund to use the facility, which has been very effective at fostering collaborations. "An important advantage that we have in Lund is the amount of cross-disciplinary work that we are able to do," said Svanberg. "That's partly because Sweden is a small country. Larger countries might have specialized institutes for everything, but we can do lots of different things in the same place, which means that cross-fertilizations can happen more easily."

Currently, one of Svanberg's favourite themes is his work on photodynamic therapy (PDT). "We're running a big project implementing interstitial PDT," he said. "Katarina [Svanberg's wife, who is director of the Lund Medical Laser Centre] is closely involved in a trial at the Riga Cancer Centre in Latvia. I was over there recently to see patients a month after treatment, and the results seem really encouraging."

Another endeavour that is close to Svanberg's heart is his "African project", in which small groups of scientists from six countries in Africa - typically including one medical expert and one physicist - are invited to Lund to build their own cancer diagnostic kits using Nichia blue laser diodes and spectrometers.

"After building the equipment, which costs approximately USD 10,000, [the scientists] get to take it back to Africa." Thanks to the Svanbergs, hi-tech cancer diagnostic equipment has become available in such unlikely places as Dakar, Senegal and Harare, Zimbabwe.

"It's now a question of seeing the patients once, and if there's a problem you can treat them right there," explained Svanberg. "This is what makes us really excited, that [the diagnostic equipment] might help in places where it is really needed."

This sense of doing things for the greater good is clearly important to Svanberg, who is a committed Christian: "I think you have to feel responsible for what you are doing. When we first started we had a project looking at uranium isotope separation, but we decided to shut it down - I didn't want to be involved with that. I think it's important to work on projects that ultimately make things better. I don't touch any military work, and it's no accident that our three divisions study energy, the environment and medicine." The uranium isotope separation project was replaced by the combustion-research division, which has turned out to be a great success.

Svanberg's altruistic ventures and Christian conscience do not preclude a business sense, as evidenced by the handful of spin-off firms that have emerged under his tutelage. "We've had some successful spin-offs, which might come as a surprise to those who think that nothing useful can come out of such [fundamental] studies," he said.

His most successful spin-off has been Opsis, which makes long-path instruments based on differential optical absorption spectroscopy for urban pollution monitoring and industrial process control.

Opsis now employs more than 60 people and there are 1000 systems installed in cities all over the world. Svanberg hints at a slight regret that the two students of his who set up the company - Svante Wallin and Leif Unéus - have yet to return to finish off their theses, but he holds out some hope that at least one of them will do so.

"To be successful commercially, you have to solve a problem," he said. "Having some interesting technology just isn't enough; you must have somebody who really wants what you are doing. That's what happened with Opsis: the company had a technology that all respectable cities wanted to have, and legally had to have. Some ideas fly, and some stay as ideas." The latest venture to take off is Gas Optics, which will produce imaging cameras to detect gas leaks in petrochemical plants.

Gas Optics is headed by another Svanberg protégé, Jonas Sandsten, and the signs are good: "It's only just started, but there is a great deal of interest from the petrochemical industry, so I think that there is a lot of potential, and it's not just because of the environmental aspect or the risk of explosions. A chemical plant loses money with these leaks, so gas-detection cameras make sense economically as well."

Having chaired the CLEO Europe conference held in Glasgow in 1997 and served on the board of the Optical Society of America, Svanberg has experienced optics research on both sides of the Atlantic: "The situation in Europe is healthy, which is something that has changed enormously over the past 20 years. We could probably do with a bit more cohesion between different groups, but I think that is coming."

His strong belief in the value of fundamental research is clear: "In the US it is a little easier to get hold of money to pursue 'wild' ideas. Funding basic science is critical - it is the best guarantee of successful, practical applications."

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