Project Outline Overall objectives, approach, methodology and research training

Optical laser-based technologies are a modern key technology, aiming at scientific advancements as well as a multitude of commercial applications. Already in the last decade, European institutions considered the 21st century as the “century of the photon”. Laser-based photonic technologies are upon the most dynamic industry sectors on a global scale, with an impressive growth rate of 21 % per year (according to the SMART study, prepared for the EU commission in 2011).

Extending the range of laser applications requires a constant expansion of the accessible regimes of laser operation, e.g. with regard to available intensities, temporal resolution or accessible wavelengths. Concepts from nonlinear optics (e.g. frequency conversion, synthesis of ultra-short light pulses, or applications of multi-photon processes) provide the means to achieve this goal. Nonlinear optics is at the heart of any modern laser-based research. This holds in particular true for nonlinear optics, driven with ultra-fast lasers. The latter provide high peak intensities, hence enabling high-order nonlinearities. As prominent examples we note the generation of extreme-ultraviolet (XUV) radiation or sub-femtosecond (attosecond) light pulses. XUV radiation is required for high-resolution laser lithography in microchip production. Attosecond pulses are the fastest available device on earth to monitor even super-fast processes in real time, e.g. taking snapshots of molecules during chemical reactions or motion of charges in electronic microchips.

With regard to commercial applications of high-intensity nonlinear optics, we note the large fields of nonlinear microscopy, imaging and spectroscopy. Such techniques find a tremendous multi-disciplinary wealth of applications, e.g. in medicine, bio-technology, or engineering. Today every medical laboratory, and every pharmaceutical company use commercial nonlinear optical multi-photon microscopes. Every automobile or aerospace company applies nonlinear laser spectroscopy, e.g. to monitor and optimize combustion processes in engines.

However, nonlinear optical processes typically suffer from efficiencies well below unity. This holds in particular true, when high-order processes are involved (e.g. high-harmonic generation) or when the driving laser intensities must be limited below damage thresholds (e.g. in nonlinear microscopy of living cells). In these cases the conversion efficiencies rarely exceed 10-6…10-4. Therefore we require methods to enhance nonlinear optical processes and properties. The field of “coherent control” provides techniques to manipulate laser-matter interactions. The basic idea is to use appropriately designed light-matter interactions to steer quantum systems towards a desired outcome. Examples of possible control parameters are, e.g. the modulation of the temporal laser intensity and frequency profiles, pulse delays in sequences of laser pulses, or central carrier frequencies.

HICONO connects concepts of coherent control with high-intensity nonlinear-optical interactions. Particular scientific aims are to enhance the efficiency of nonlinear optical processes, extend the range of high-intensity laser applications, and develop novel devices based on ultra-fast high-intensity lasers. In terms of training, HICONO aims at the development of young researchers with appropriate skills to exploit the concepts of high intensity laser technologies and laser-based control, pushing it towards applications. This provides the dynamic research community with training capacities on a broad scientific and technological basis and contributes to a broad European knowledge base for laser technologies.

HICONO combines fundamental scientific investigations and technological applications of high-intensity laser-matter interactions. HICONO applies a broad methodology at a pronounced multi-disciplinary character. The projects connect physics, physical chemistry, and optical engineering, aiming at applications in laser physics (e.g. towards novel devices to measure and control ultra-fast laser pulses), physical chemistry (e.g. towards ultra-fast observation of chemical reactions), biology, medicine and engineering (e.g. towards novel devices for nonlinear optical microscopy and imaging). Academic and industry teams will closely cooperate in HICONO, to overcome technological challenges and exploit research results towards new devices.

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