ARCHIVED - NRC "attosecond scientist" wins Polanyi Award

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May 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

Two eminent Canadian researchers – Drs Paul Corkum and André Bandrauk – are sharing this year's John C. Polanyi Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Announced in March, the $250,000 award highlights their joint accomplishments in a new field known as "attosecond science."

Dr. Corkum is a senior physicist at the NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences and a Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottawa. He has won several prestigious physics awards in the last decade, and has just been appointed an Officer to the Order of Canada. He is known as the father of the attosecond laser pulse – a pulse so rapid that it has allowed him to capture the first image of an electron orbiting an atom.

His colleague, Dr. Bandrauk, is a theoretical chemist and the Canada Research Chair in Computational Chemistry and Molecular Photonics at the Université de Sherbrooke. Dr. Bandrauk began a productive collaboration in laser science with Dr. Corkum in the mid-1980s. His state-of-the-art supercomputer simulations, combined with Dr. Corkum's advanced laser experiments, have given the pair world recognition for the manipulation and imaging of electrons on a time scale of a few attoseconds.

An attosecond is one billionth of one billionth of a second. It is a thousand times faster than a femtosecond, and a billion times faster than a nanosecond.

The use of laser techniques has advanced atomic knowledge by orders of magnitude in just a few short years. Dr. Corkum recalls how little he knew about lasers when he arrived at NRC in 1973. "I had never seen one," he says. "I was a theorist joining an NRC group that was using lasers to explore how light interacted with plasmas – electrons that are free from the ions that normally hold them." This group had constructed a CO2 laser – a world-class Canadian invention for advancing molecular science.

"I wanted to see if I could control the movement of electrons by shining a laser beam on them," continues Dr. Corkum. "I decided to try making really short pulses with a CO2 laser." His collaboration with Dr. Bandrauk began several years later.

Dr. Paul Corkum (right) and Dr. André Bandrauk are sharing the 2007 NSERC Polanyi Award.
Dr. Paul Corkum (right) and Dr. André Bandrauk are sharing the 2007 NSERC Polanyi Award.

Dr. Corkum reflects on the groundwork laid by several Nobel Prize winning scientists. He mentions Dr. Ahmed Zewail, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work on viewing and studying chemical reactions at the atomic level.

"Dr. Zewail showed that, with femtosecond laser pulses, it was possible to see how atoms in a molecule move during a chemical reaction," explains Dr. Corkum. "He used a technique that can be described as the world's fastest camera to image molecules in transition during chemical reactions. The camera was based on new laser technology that generated light flashes of some tens of femtoseconds duration. This time scale was right for imaging the movement of molecules, but far too slow to capture the movement of electrons."

And so Drs Corkum and Bandrauk combined their strengths to create laser pulses at attosecond speed – a thousand times faster than femtoseconds. They succeeded in pulling electrons out of their orbit and imaging them as they re-collided with the ion to which they were attached, creating a burst of light.

"Through Dr. Zewail's camera technique, we captured the movement of electrons in real time," says Dr. Corkum. "At attosecond speed, the electrons create an image of their movement through the light emitted by the collision."

When asked about the potential applications of this work, Dr. Corkum says he can only speculate. "Some people have suggested applications in materials technology, bio-photonics and high-bandwidth telecommunications, but I can't honestly see how we're going to get there," he comments. "Experts in these fields will have to make the connections that aren't clear now."

Dr. Corkum points to a potential application in nanometrology, since this technique will allow scientists to see the physical dimensions and fine details of nanoparticles. The NRC Institute for National Measurement Standards is interested in launching a nanometrology research project with his team.

When it comes to benefits for humanity, Dr. Corkum speaks of a dream to use the attosecond laser beam technique to explore the molecular structure of biological cells. "Right now, we don't have a molecular-scale map of a cell," he says. "Maybe we could use these intense light pulses to determine the mass and position of every molecule in a cell." He speculates that this work might one day help medical researchers advance their understanding of cell processes, something that could enhance drug delivery.

The capacity to visualize, understand and control the movement of electrons has put the Bandrauk-Corkum team at the forefront of this new area of science. To read more about their remarkable collaboration and the John C. Polanyi Award, visit the NSERC website at http://www.nserc.gc.ca/award_e.asp?nav=polanyi&lbi=current .

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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