An emeritus professor from Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan has been honored with the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventions in the field of laser physics. Gérard Mourou, the A.D. Moore distinguished university professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science, was a faculty member at U-M for 16 years and retired in 2004.
Mourou is one of three winners of this year’s prize. Other winners include Mourou’s former graduate student, Donna Strickland, who is now an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and Arthur Ashkin, former Bell Laboratories scientist.
In 1991, Mourou founded U-M’s Center for Ultrafast Optical Science, where the bladeless version of LASIK eye surgery was developed, and HERCULES, the world’s most intense laser, was born. Mourou is honored for developing the chirped pulse amplification, or CPA, technique that revolutionized the field of optics and led to advances in science, engineering, and medicine.
“Mourou is a visionary,” says Herbert Winful, an Arthur F. Thurnau professor of electrical engineering and computer science and one of Mourou’s nominators. “Chirped pulse amplification has made possible the most powerful laser systems in the world. It has had applications that range from fundamental science – like creating elementary particles, accelerating particles to extreme energies, and really probing the processes that go on in matter – all the way to materials processing and medicine.”
CPA boosts the peak power of ultrashort light pulses to levels that can exceed several petawatts. A petwatt is a quadrillion watts, or roughly 1/200th of the total power of sunlight striking the earth’s atmosphere.
Mourou brought the technique and his team with him when he came to U-M from the University of Rochester. At U-M, they, including Strickland, advanced the CPA approach and developed applications.
IntraLase, a U-M spinout company Mourou co-founded to commercialize the bladeless LASIK technique, has used CPA on more than 5 million patients. In the process, a scalpel is replaced by an ultraprecise laser, making the procedure safer and easier for both patients and ophthalmologists.
HERCULES holds the Guinness World Record for the highest-intensity focused laser. Researchers say its beam is more intense than what would result if a giant magnifying glass focused all of the sunlight shining toward Earth onto one grain of sand.
The laser’s power (not its intensity) recently received a $2-million upgrade funded by the National Science Foundation. With more laser energy to focus, U-M researchers and collaborators from around the world can make better tabletop devices that produce particle and X-ray beams for medical and national security applications, and also explore mysteries in astrophysics and the quantum realm.
Mourou led the development in Europe of the Extreme Light Infrastructure, a facility that is home to the most powerful laser systems based on CPA for interdisciplinary research.
“These lasers are powerful enough to reproduce conditions in the middle of the sun,” says Bradford Orr, chair of the U-M department of physics.
Mourou also had appointments in the department of physics and applied physics program, where he was key in establishing the Frontiers of Optical Coherent and Ultrafast Science (FOCUS), one of the first frontier centers funded by the National Science Foundation. FOCUS was a multidisciplinary center that also included faculty from Michigan Engineering’s Center for Ultrafast Optical Science and the department of chemistry and the University of Texas.
“He has a boundless enthusiasm for his research field, and that was able to inspire his co-workers and many generations of students,” says Karl Krushelnick, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences who worked with Mourou.