The European Commission has taken a long-anticipated decision to establish the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) as a European Research Infrastructure Consortium, or ERIC. The ELI facilities make up the largest, multi-site laser facility in the world. The host countries, the Czech Republic and Hungary, applied in May 2020. The decision to approve the application comes after years of intense negotiations.
“This decision means the lab’s sites can now operate legally together, as one organisation,” says Allen Weeks, Director General of the ELI Delivery Consortium. “The decision comes at an important time since the transition to operations is already happening, and the interest from scientists is intense.”
The ERIC is a unique legal entity, formed by an EU regulation specifically for scientific infrastructures. As an international organisation its Members are countries, who contribute scientifically and financially to the consortium. In addition to the Czech Republic and Hungary, Italy and Lithuania are founding Members. Germany and Bulgaria are founding Observers with an aim to fully join at a later date. Other European and non-European countries expressed interest to join after establishment.
The newly formed ELI ERIC is tasked with enabling scientists to access the state-of-the-art lasers. Access is open for scientists from anywhere, based on proposals evaluated by an independent panel. Being a Member means that a country’s scientists can help shape the strategy, participate in mission-based research, and provide access for its graduate students and industry.
“For scientists already in the field and disciplines new to lasers, ELI is very interesting,” says Jean-Claude Kieffer, a leading expert in lasers and photonics, and Director at the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre in Montreal, Canada. “The advanced lasers offer higher intensities and repetition rates, potentially opening new lines of research and new avenues for societal applications.”
The ELI ERIC facilities are ELI-Beamlines in Dolní Břežany in the Czech Republic and the ELI-ALPS facility in Szeged, Hungary. They are the first large-scale science labs built in Europe’s newest member states, at a cost of €300 million - each - over the last six years, using European structural funds. They already employ 600 scientists, engineers, and support staff from the host countries, the region and abroad.
“The impact on the community is very obvious here,” says Roman Hvezda, Managing Director at ELI-Beamlines in Dolní Břežany. “This is among the largest science investments in Europe, and the impact in the Czech Republic and the region is significant.”
There is a third ELI facility being built in Romania, near the capital Bucharest. The ELI-NP laboratory, pioneering the new field of nuclear photonics, also employs hundreds of scientists and graduate students. It is expected to join the other two ELI labs in the newly formed international organisation.
The ELI facilities were first proposed by leading European scientists in the field and led by 2018 Nobel Prize laureate Gérard Mourou. As far back as 2006 ELI was identified as crucial for Europe to maintain a lead in laser technology and science.
“Each of these facilities was built to specialise in areas of science and laser technology to complement the other facilities,” says Gábor Szabó, Managing Director at ELI-ALPS in Szeged. “Any one of them would, by itself, be among the world’s most advanced.”
Together they include a suite of lasers unmatched anywhere in the world, including pulses up to 10 petawatts, a flash that for a brief instant is 10% of the Sun’s energy; ultra-fast lasers approaching atto-seconds – about one quintillionth of a second; and a combination high-average power laser firing more than 1 petawatt up to ten times a second.
The integration of the ELI facilities is planned to take place over the next two-to-three years, comprising an initial operations phase. During that time management, technical and scientific procedures in the different facilities are being harmonised. The merger is being facilitated by a €20 million grant from European Union under the Horizon 2020 programme known as "IMPULSE".