Shared dreams and laser beams

Research and innovation

By Alan Morantz

Writer, Freelance

Paul Corkum
Physicist Paul Corkum in his office at the National Research Council
“Being able to direct the movement of electrons would be a game changer in fields such as computing, engineering and medicine.”

– Paul Corkum

The University of Ottawa’s Advanced Research Complex (ARC) is robust evidence of the University’s global ambitions in the fields of photonics and geoscience. To Paul Corkum, ARC represents a magical research playground.

One of Canada’s most honoured scientists — he recently returned from Israel where he accepted the prestigious Harvey Prize — Corkum is highly visible in the international community. He is a National Research Council-Canada Research Chair in Attosecond Photonics, a physics professor at the University of Ottawa and the director of the Joint Attosecond Science Laboratory (JASLab), a partnership between the University and the National Research Council (NRC).

From the JASLab, in the sub-basement of the NRC’s complex on Sussex Drive, Corkum directs a team of post-docs and PhD students (at least 10 at any one time) that probes ever deeper into the submolecular world using laser techniques that Corkum pioneered in the early 1990s.

At its most basic, attosecond science is about observing the very small and the very fast — electrons buzzing within molecules at a billionth of a billionth of a second. The key pieces in the research arsenal are high-precision lasers that produce both short light pulses to measure the fast processes of electrons and intense light pulses capable of controlling electrons.

“Given that electrons bind all material together and control chemical reactions,” says Corkum, “being able to direct the movement of electrons would be a game changer in fields such as computing, engineering and medicine.”

While work at the JASLab will continue, ARC will allow him to take his attosecond research onto a parallel track.

“We have made great progress in dividing the period of light — the time it takes for light to make an oscillation — into shorter pieces,” says Corkum. “We believe we can do the same thing with the wavelength of light — the distance needed for a light oscillation. So at ARC, we’ll try a spatial version of what we did in time at the JASLab.” That means being able to observe and locate the molecular content of a biological cell “point by point.”

“At ARC, we’ll use cell sections,” Corkum explains. “People can slice cells, like cutting bologna, with diamond knives that cut so thin that slices are only about 50 nanometres in size. We’ll take pieces from those slices and move them around and see what’s in each slice. That’ll require using a laser to turn each small piece into a gas and then using a second beam to ionize the gas. Then we’ll be able to pull on gas particles, accelerating them and measuring how long it takes to go from here to there.”

Corkum is excited about what the facility will offer: not just its physical infrastructure, but also the collaborative environment. ARC’s physical structure addresses the great demands that attosecond science places on a building. Each laser pulse is so precisely controlled that it is accurate to one part in a trillion. To protect the lasers and other instruments from vibrations from within the building and outside, the equipment will sit on concrete slabs secured to the bedrock and isolated from the building structure. Temperature, humidity and pressure will all be strictly controlled.

ARC’s labs have also been designed in clusters to promote interaction among the researchers. Across the corridor from Corkum will be the labs occupied by fellow photonics researcher Robert Boyd, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Quantum Nonlinear Optics, and his team.

Indeed, ARC will take collaboration to a new level. “We’re now talking about drilling a hole through the ceiling, a small hole since light beams don’t need much,” Corkum says with excitement. “Right above me will be a physics colleague, Albert Stolow. We’ll be able to share laser beams!

“I tell people that science is an incredibly social profession, which is not what most would think,” he continues. For him, discussing ideas with colleagues, making presentations at conferences, hosting scientists from France or Russia, or advising students on how to write a journal article are great sources of satisfaction.

The complex will also help advance another cause close to Corkum’s heart: solidifying Ottawa as the photonics capital of the world. Corkum points out that in 2002, long before he joined the University of Ottawa, he shared his vision for photonics in the capital with Howard Alper, then vice-president, research. He pointed out that photonics is one of Ottawa’s industrial pillars — it is home to many important government labs and some 120 companies working in photonics and optics — which needed a strong academic institution at its base.

Now that ARC has opened it doors, Corkum’s vision for photonics in Ottawa is being fully realized at last. The next step, he says, will be to broaden the collaborative environment beyond the University’s walls.