On 14 September, the staff and invited guests of ELI ALPS celebrated the successful completion of the GINOP large project, the commissioning of the laser research facilities and the symbolic opening of our research institute to the research community.



Opening photo: Dr. Judit Fendler, Chancellor of the University of Szeged, Dr. Csaba Lantos, Minister for Energy, Dr. Balázs Hankó, State Secretary for Innovation and Higher Education and Prof. Gábor Szabó, Managing Director of ELI ALPS are unveiling the new milestone.


At the closing ceremony of the GINOP-2.3.6-15-2015-00001 project titled “Implementation of the ELI laser research centre (ELI ALPS) large project, phase 2”, Prof. Dr. Gábor Szabó, Managing Director of ELI ALPS, Dr. János Bóka, Minister for EU Affairs, Dr. Tibor Navracsics, Minister for Regional Development, Dr. Balázs Hankó, Secretary of State for Culture and Innovation, Dr. Balázs Greinstetter, Deputy Secretary of State responsible for the implementation of economic development programmes and Head of the GINOP Managing Authority, Dr. László Rovó, Rector of the University of Szeged and Allen Weeks, Director General of ELI ERIC took the floor to give their welcome speeches. Then, Dr. Csaba Lantos, Minister for Energy unveiled the new milestone in the laser timeline on the walkway leading to the entrance of the Institute. Finally, with the help of theremin artist Katica Illényi, the audience in the conference room could get a glimpse into the physics behind music-making.

After more than six years of planning and ten years of construction and commissioning activities within the framework of four project phases under the GOP and GINOP programmes, the staff and guests of ELI ALPS celebrated the formal opening of the Szeged based research centre. The design (preparatory) phase between 2007 and 2013 was funded by the Economic Development Operational Programme (GOP), while the implementation phase, which started in spring 2014, was financed by the Economic Development and Innovation Operational Programme (GINOP). The first implementation phase, which began in 2013, focused on the construction of technological and support buildings and some of the scientific facilities, while the now completed second phase saw the handover of the building complex in 2017 and the procurement and installation of world-class research technology equipment during the period leading up to 2023. In the past few years, ELI ALPS conducted two joint user calls with ELI ERIC already as a user facility. 


Prof. dr. Gábor Szabó: Uncompromised world-class quality

“This is the neglected grassland where construction of the research centre started in 2014,” Prof. Dr. Gábor Szabó said in his opening speech pointing to a photo of an old iron gate and the barren winter landscape behind it. The laser physicist and managing director of the institute has been involved in the project since the very beginning. “The site once belonged to a Soviet military barracks, where interesting finds were unearthed: not only the remains of gas masks, but even a young mammoth was found at the beginning of the construction works. Our building stands on 819 piles, the combined length of which would be more than 14 kilometres if they were put one behind the other; the special structural solution provides the vibration-free environment required for the operation of our laser equipment. Vibration immunity is a must because the light beam from some lasers travels up to 100 metres from the point of generation to the experimental endstations, and at the end of this path it must reach a target with an accuracy of about 2–3 micrometres. It’s like trying to hit a surface equivalent to half of a five-forint coin in Budapest from ELI in Szeged. The isolation of vibrations has turned out to be more efficient than expected; during the recent earthquake in Szarvas (a town at a distance of around 88 km from Szeged – translator’s note), ELI ALPS’ sensitive instruments detected vibrations that could have been generated by a forklift truck passing outside the research centre.”

In his speech, Prof. Szabó also recalled that at the beginning of the pandemic, a temporary epidemiological hospital with 52 intensive care unit beds was set up in an isolated hall of the ELI ALPS building complex. The images taken at the time were reminiscent of the situation in northern Italy back then, but fortunately no patients had to be brought here, and the radiation-shielded laboratories have since then been equipped with lasers, secondary sources and experimental endstations using pulsed laser beams. These facilities are now available for experimental campaigns to be conducted by users from all over the world, and the photos are just a reminder of the extraordinary time.

“The somewhat gloomy Hungarian soul finds it hard to accept that uncompromised world class quality can exist in Hungary, but ELI ALPS is a proof of it,” said the managing director of the Research Institute. “ELI ALPS has so far achieved its goal. Although this praise may seem a bit strange coming from me (although a ‘classic’ figure once said that self-praise is so important that it should not be left to others), please allow me to thank my colleagues for their work. Because what we are experiencing now is not self-praise, but goal feast, and we have every reason to celebrate,” added Dr. Gábor Szabó addressing the staff of the Research Institute.



Dr. János Bóka: A good example of regional development

Dr János Bóka, Minister for EU Affairs, recalled that the project, which has reached its historic milestone, started in 2007 with the launch of the preparatory phase.

“A lot of people have worked very hard to put this project at the forefront of laser science through its scientific content and objectives. A lot of people have worked very hard to ensure that funding was in place and to have a business model securing long-term operation. Furthermore, a lot of people have worked very hard to set up a special governance system reflecting the specificities of the owners and the user community. I could say that in a way this is my success too, just like every goal scored by the Hungarian national football team is in a way my goal too. However, the fact is that this is your success and I congratulate you for this,” said the Minister, addressing the ELI ALPS community. Dr. Bóka described the ELI ALPS project as both inspiring and instructive, a kind of project that other knowledge centres around Hungary would benefit from.

In his welcome speech, the Minister for EU Affairs, as a former staff member of the Faculty of Law of the University of Szeged, expressed his pleasure that ELI ALPS was implemented in Szeged: “Although it is geographically located in Szeged, this project is not only and not primarily based in Szeged; this project has grown out of Szeged. It builds on the existing scientific base in Szeged, which is organically linked to the international scientific community. It is this reputation and this network that will give substance to the infrastructure at ELI ALPS,” said Dr. Bóka, referring to the knowledge base in optics and laser science at the University of Szeged.



Dr Tibor Navracsics: a responsibility fit of scientists

According to the welcoming words of Dr. Tibor Navracsics, Minister for Regional Development, ELI ALPS is the realization of a dream that represents the future of Europe, and that future is here in Szeged. Szeged’s traditions, history and heroes in higher education and scientific research have laid the foundations for ELI ALPS to become one of the research hubs of Europe and the world.

“The financial contribution of the taxpayers of the European Union has enabled us to realize this project, and ELI ALPS to operate here in Szeged as an important knowledge base for Europe and the world. This support also means responsibility. It means that having established a world-leading research centre with the help of the European Union, research conducted here must be used not only for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of Europe and the world. This is a responsibility fit for scientists, because science can never be confined within national boundaries. Science has always served the same purpose, along the same standards worldwide, albeit often on the basis of culturally different approaches: the well-being of humanity.”

Dr. Tibor Navracsics expressed his special pleasure that ELI ALPS was built in the Southern Great Plain. He sees a breakthrough potential in the now completed project, which – backed by the pool of excellence available here – could raise Southern Hungary to rank among Europe’s most outstanding economies.



Dr. Balázs Hankó: We believe in cooperation

Dr. Balázs Hankó, Secretary of State for Innovation and Higher Education, gave a new interpretation to the closure of the project establishing the research centre:

“We can and must learn about our created world through humble knowledge and professional cooperation. Through humble knowledge, which is the hallmark of ELI ALPS Research Institute. Through respect that does not seek to override the order of our created world, but rather to know its processes at the attosecond timescale, at a fraction of a second. And through professional collaboration which is based on Europe’s fundamental values, where one is neighbour to neighbour, something new, something good, a future can be created,” said Dr. Hankó.

He emphasized that Hungary has given, is giving and will continue to give giants to the development of science. Today, eleven Hungarian universities are among the top 500, including the University of Szeged, the majority owner of ELI ALPS. “In the last four years, the number of top-rated scientific publications has increased by 78%, and every other paper is the product of European collaboration,” Dr. Hankó added.

He noted that Hungary is ranked 34th in the world and 21st in Europe in innovation rankings. The goal is to be among the top ten innovators in Europe and in the top 25 in the world by 2030. To this end, Hungary has adopted the John von Neumann Programme, the three key concepts of which are linking universities and research infrastructure with the economy, as well as efficiency and measurability.



Dr. Greinstetter Balázs: We maintained daily, live contact throughout

Dr. Balázs Greinstetter, Deputy Secretary of State for the Implementation of Economic Development Programmes and Head of the GINOP Managing Authority, recalled that at the beginning of the project, between 2011 and 2013, Hungary had around HUF 2,000 billion of funding available under the new Széchenyi Plan for economic development and the enhancement of competitiveness. “Science and innovation were high on the list of goals and breakthrough points. Within this framework, the Government also set the goal of increasing domestic participation in large-scale research equipment and infrastructure projects under the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). Hence, the Government started cooperation with ELI-HU Research and Development Non-Profit Ltd. through several priority calls.”

“The first phase of the project to prepare the implementation of the ELI ALPS research centre was launched in April 2011 with a total of HUF 800 million in funding from the Economic Development Operational Programme (GOP). This was the time when the Government chose to include the project in the national programmes of the new Széchenyi Plan, and assigned its implementation to the Ministry for National Development. In January 2012, ELI-HU and the Managing Authority signed a grant agreement for the second phase under a new call for proposals under the aegis of GOP, and a further HUF 1.6 billion was awarded for the continuation of the project and the construction of the research centre. The project’s stakeholders summarized the final preparatory phase at a conference in August 2013, by which time the complex preparations for the procurement of the laser equipment had been completed. Then the construction of ELI ALPS started in spring 2014 with the disbursement of 29.5 billion HUF under a new GOP call.”

“The building was inaugurated in July 2017, and the installation of the research equipment could begin. Funding continued from the second priority R&D call of the new Operational Programme for Economic Development (GINOP). Under this call, a total of HUF 48.9 billion was paid out from 2015. In 2018, the first foreign users, Swiss and Greek research teams, were able to start their work, and since 2019, researchers from all over the world have been able to submit proposals for experiments on ELI ALPS’ equipment.”

“The work and expertise of many colleagues were instrumental in ensuring that the technical challenges and issues that needed to be resolved were handled in a reassuring way. I can say that this is one of the most complex projects of Hungary’s large projects, not because of the size of the sum involved, but because of the research and development content and the technologies that did not even exist at the start of the project. It was not an easy task to achieve this together. Today’s celebration was preceded by many discussions, modifications and technical clarifications. Therefore, I thank my colleagues for their efforts from this spot too. We have been in daily contact with the beneficiary of the ELI ALPS project, complex in content and significant in length of implementation. Yet, it was managed professionally and efficiently throughout, and as a result we can today celebrate the completion of the project,” Dr. Balázs Greinstetter said in conclusion of his speech.



Prof. dr. László Rovó: We expect great results

Prof. Dr. László Rovó, Rector of the University of Szeged, reminded that the university’s history in Szeged dates back more than 100 years, and it is the only Hungarian higher education institution to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for research conducted in Hungary. To convince the sceptics that Szeged was indeed a worthwhile location for a university, Kuno von Klebelsberg, Hungary’s Minister of Culture in the 1920s, made all efforts to concentrate knowledge in Szeged, and enabled the city to lead the world in biochemistry, in part through Prof. Albert Szent-Györgyi.

According to the Rector, the excellence of laser science in Szeged is demonstrated by the fact that laser eye surgeries performed anywhere in the world utilize in part the knowledge created by laser scientists at the University of Szeged.

He expects that similarly to biochemistry, laser research at ELI ALPS will bring great results for the University of Szeged. He believes that the research institute will further strengthen laser science and at the same time will orient the university’s students towards natural sciences. And the university is already feeling the effects of “internationalization” generated by ELI ALPS. ELI ALPS and the university are involved in joint projects demonstrating potentials of economic use; these include particle acceleration experiments to replace hadron sources in radiation oncology with cheaper laser sources, or transmutation experiments the long-term goal of which is the more efficient management of nuclear waste. As an example of the positive impact of ELI ALPS, Prof. Dr. Rovó mentioned the integrated PhD course called Large Scale Accelerators and Lasers (LASCALA), which was introduced by the University of Szeged under the auspices of the EUGLOH project, building on the Physics MSc programme, in collaboration with the University of Paris-Saclay, the University of Lund and Sapienza University.


Allen Weeks: Excellence requires commitment

Allen Weeks, Director General of ELI ERIC emphasized that anyone from the community of laser science, materials science, or large-scale infrastructures in general can confirm that ELI ALPS is a leading facility in the world, compared to the United States, China or Japan. Excellence requires commitment, said Allen Weeks claiming that this commitment is reflected in that the Hungarian Government kept its word in terms of support, and in that the team implementing the Research Institute worked on time and on budget. And this commitment puts Hungary among a very small circle of countries not only in Europe, but also in the world.

According to the Director General, the next step after the construction of the research institute will be its successful operation. At the beginning of 2024, the Szeged-based research centre is expected to officially come under the auspices of the ELI European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ELI ERIC), which was set up pursuant to a 2021 decision of the European Commission. Mr. Weeks said he was sure that in 2024 Germany, which currently has an observer status, will join ELI ERIC as a founding member. The goal is to make the Szeged-based facility attractive not only for Hungarian researchers; we must make scientists in the region and in Europe aware of the fact that there is a world-class facility in their own backyard. Finally, Allen Weeks thanked the researchers at ELI ALPS for their work, and looked forward to working together in the future.



Dr. Csaba Lantos: We are opening the door wide for research and development

After the welcome speeches, the new milestone in the timeline of high-intensity laser research was unveiled on the walkway leading to the entrance of ELI ALPS. The milestone marks the occasion that ELI ALPS has opened its gates to the scientific community. The latest milestone was laid a few years ago to honour Prof. Gérard Mourou, the mastermind behind ELI and his former colleague Donna Strickland, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In his speech held at the new milestone, Dr. Csaba Lantos, Minister for Energy quoted Ferenc Deák (a figurehead of the Reformist movement in 19th century Hungary – translator’s note): “Every penny spent on the promotion of science is a sacrifice put on the altar of our homeland.” Dr. Lantos stressed that “the idea has not lost any of its validity. We are convinced that one of the keys to the country’s prosperity and economic growth is to place Hungarian research and development at the forefront of Europe and the world. And there could be no better example of how this is reflected not only in words but also in deeds than today’s milestone ceremony. We now see the completion of a grand project, for which thanks are due to all contributors.”

According to the Minister, ELI ALPS is a place of research where researchers seek solutions to the grand challenges facing humanity, solutions which can shape the future of energy, in addition to that of scientific, industrial and medical applications. To this end, the institute needs high-level backing from the scientific research community and the higher education system, links with economic operators, as well as international cooperation and a supportive government environment, Csaba Lantos said.

"We cannot fill Hungary’s land with gold, gas and rare metals, but by opening the door wide to science and research and development, we can win the future,” concluded the Minister, adding that the Ministry of Energy is supporting the planned infrastructure development of the Science Park on the land adjacent to the premises of ELI ALPS with nearly HUF 10 billion.


Left: Dr. Csaba Lantos, Minister for Energy, Dr. Judit Fendler, Chancellor of the University of Szeged, Dr. Balázs Hankó Secretary of State for Innovation and Higher Education and Prof. Dr. Gábor Szabó, Managing Director of ELI ALPS

Right: Dr. Tibor Navracsics, Minister for Regional Development,  Dr. János Bóka, Minister for EU Affairs, Allen Weeks, Director General of ELI ERIC, Mátyás Maksi acting head of the Representative Office of the European Commission, Prof. Dr. Katalin Varjú, Science Director of ELI ALPS, Prof. Dr. László Rovó, Rector of the University of Szeged, dr. Balázs Greinstetter, Deputy Secretary of State responsible for the Implementation of Economic Development Programmes and Head of the GINOP Managing Authority


Katica Illényi: The physics behind music-making

After the speeches, the event participants were treated to a theremin performance and instrument demonstration by Katica Illényi, Liszt Prize-winning violinist and theremin artist. Before the concert started, Prof. Dr. Szabó explained the physics of this special instrument in a nutshell. He said that the antennae and the hands of the theremin player together change the capacitance of a capacitor, which changes the resonant frequency of the oscillator connected to the antenna. In other words, playing on the instrument is nothing but the manipulation of frequencies and resonances.

“I would like to add that, being a physicist, I understood the operating principle of the instrument relatively quickly, but the deeper my understanding becomes, the less I can comprehend how to play it,” Prof. Gábor Szabó said, to the general amusement of the attendees.

The audience must have felt the same way, especially seeing the artist’s hands moving in the air on invisible “strings”. Katica Illényi explained that the distance of the left hand from the antenna adjusts the volume, while the right hand sets the tempo and pitch. The theremin is a sensitive instrument; after being tuned, it had to be re-tuned when the hall became packed with people for the performance. The artist also revealed that her slouching from fatigue can also detune the delicate instrument, which has neither registers nor keys: the player must locate, or rather feel invisible notes in the air, and the only control is human hearing.

Accompanied by Rita Termes on the piano, Katica Illényi performed Morricone's film score to Once Upon a Time in the Wild West, and then, with amazing clarity, Lauretta’s aria from Puccini's opera Gianni Schicchi, once beautifully sung by Maria Callas. The next piece was Édith Piaf's L'hymne à l'amour, followed by Illényi’s own composition, and finally she performed tunes from Franz Lehár's operetta The Land of Smiles. After that, she called for a volunteer from the audience, who happened to be a member of the Institute’s Finance Department, with whom she played four-hands on the instrument. The performance, which also featured the exhaust sound of a Harley Davidson motorbike, was met with a big round of applause.


Source: article by Sándor Panek