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Visiting the most powerful laser in the world


By James Dacey

You might find this surprising, but Romania is one of the main reasons I became a journalist. Back in 2006, having recently graduated with a degree in natural sciences, I spent the summer in the Transylvanian city of Brasov, teaching English to school kids. While there, I was talked into writing a few articles about my experiences for the local tourism magazine, Brasov Visitor. To cut a rambling story short, I had a memorable summer and caught the writing bug. Eventually, I landed a job at Physics World, which enabled me to combine my journalistic leanings with my scientific background.

Over a decade later, I recently had the opportunity to return to the country where my career began. This time, IOP Publishing (which publishes Physics World) had been contracted to create a film about a new scientific research centre just outside Bucharest. ELI-NP, which stands for European Research Infrastructure Nuclear Physics, is part of a Europe-wide project to build a new generation of research facilities. I therefore packed the Physics World camera gear and flew to the Romanian capital with my colleague Chris Thomas, curious to see if the country was as I remembered it.

Our job was to create a film for ELI-NP aimed at engineers, researchers and technicians, particularly those who might not be familiar with the country. There is certainly plenty to get excited about: the Romanian site will host ground-breaking optics technologies for diverse applications. These include nuclear physics and astrophysics, as well as applied research in materials science. At its heart will be the most powerful laser system in the world with two 10-petawatt beams. The other flagship technology at ELI-NP is its gamma-beam system, which will be used independently and also in combination with the laser system.

ELI-NP will be fully operational in 2019, but much of the infrastructure is already in place and the resounding message from existing staff is that this is a great opportunity to join an international science lab in its infancy. It’s a chance to get in there early and shape the lab’s future direction. “To join a project in the implementation stage, it is undoubtedly the stage that our creativity will be stimulated and our practical experience will be accumulated,” says Guangling Chen, one of the researchers we met.

The ELI-NP site is located in the suburb of Magurele about 10 minutes by car from downtown Bucharest and all it needs now is the staff to turn this into a dynamic research centre. Fortunately, the site is part of one of Romania’s most visible scientific hubs, with neighbours including the National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering, and the University of Bucharest’s faculty of physics.

When I was last in Romania, it was on the verge of joining the European Union and hosting one of the three initial ELI projects is a sign of its development. Clearly, Romania is a young democracy still coming to terms with its communist past, but it’s an exciting place and change is in the air. Indeed, recent protests against government legislation that would have decriminalized certain activities deemed to be corrupt appear to have worked and the legislation has been scrapped. Projects such as ELI-NP can only bring further modernization.

To find out more about ELI-NP check out the film above or this webinar with the project director Nicolae Victor Zamfir.


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