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Ultrafast pioneers land physics Nobel

03 Oct 2023

Ferenc Krausz, Anne L'Huillier, and Pierre Agostini recognized for attosecond sources opening a window on electron dynamics.

Three pioneers in ultrafast science and attoscecond lasers have won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics, for their work resulting in pulses of light short enough to study the movement of electrons in atoms and molecules.

Ferenc Krausz, Anne L'Huillier, and Pierre Agostini were each awarded an equal share of the prize, as well as the SEK 11 million ($1 million) financial award.

The prize recognizes early work by L'Huillier, who in 1987 discovered that many different overtones of light could be generated by transmitting an infrared laser through a noble gas.

Caused by the laser photons interacting with atoms in the gas, the phenomenon delivers excess energy to electrons that is then emitted as a pulse of light.

Then in 2001, Agostini’s team succeeded in producing and investigating a series of consecutive light pulses, each lasting 250 attoseconds, and developed a way to measure such short pulses of light.

Meanwhile Krausz and his colleagues discovered how to isolate a single light pulse that lasted 650 attoseconds, with the first lasers to go beyond the femtosecond regime.

Since then, work by these and other attosecond science groups around the world have refined the technology to produce pulses shorter than 50 attoseconds, while Krausz and colleagues are now developing biomedical applications of the technique in molecular fingerprinting.

Window on electron behavior
Summarizing the nature of the research Eva Olsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said: “The ability to generate attosecond pulses of light has opened the door [to] an extremely tiny timescale, and also to the world of electrons.

“Back in 1925, Werner Heisenberg argued that this world cannot be seen. Thanks to attosecond physics, this is now starting to change, and we are starting to explore this world.”

Shortly after receiving the call from the Nobel committee L’Huillier - fresh from teaching a class at Lund University in Sweden - said: “The last half-hour of my lecture was a bit difficult to do! Not many women get this prize, so it’s very, very special.”

L’Huillier, who also won the Carl Zeiss Research Award back in 2013, becomes the fifth woman to win the physics Nobel, after Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, fellow photonics pioneer Donna Strickland in 2018, and Andrea Ghez in 2020.

Asked about the practical uses of attosecond science, she mentioned the fundamental ability to observe electrons and their properties, as well as its potential as an imaging technique in semiconductor metrology as key applications.

Krausz - who began his attosecond research at the Vienna University of Technology (VUT) but is now director of the attosecond department at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany - responded to his own call by acknowledging the large number of colleagues and co-workers who had contributed to the attosecond breakthrough.

“I feel a great deal of gratitude to all of them,” he added. “Without their contributions, and a really concerted research effort throughout my career, this just wouldn’t have been possible.”

Giant lasers and molecular fingerprints
Asked what excited him the most about attosecond pulses, Krausz said it was “always exciting to see what nobody else could see before”, adding:

“I still vividly remember the excitement we felt one particular morning in the basement laboratory of our institute in Vienna in 2001, when we could first resolve electron dynamics within the oscillation period of visible light. This was just an unbelievable moment that I will never forget.”

Aside from his academic work, Krausz has also enjoyed success in business. While still a postdoctoral researcher at VUT he co-founded the spin-out company Femtolasers Produktions, using chirped mirrors to produce sub-10 femtosecond infrared pulses from Ti:sapphire lasers.

A Femtolasers source was subsequently selected as a seed laser for a beamline at the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) facility in Prague, before the firm was acquired by Newport’s Spectra-Physics Lasers division. Krausz also collaborated with industrial laser giant Trumpf to establish the joint venture firm Trumpf Scientific Lasers.

In current work, Krausz and his group have combined broadband optics, ultrafast laser sources, and precision femtosecond-attosecond field resolving technologies to develop a “molecular fingerprinting” technique that can detect changes in the composition of biofluids.

According to the Nobel committee, this holds promise as a new in vitro diagnostic analytical technique to detect characteristic molecular of traces of diseases in blood samples - with a key advantage that many molecules can be monitored at the same time, using a harmless source of non-ionizing radiation.

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