Researchers from the School of Mathematics and Physics have received recently a major £ 2 million grant to fund research in high power laser studies.

The four year research programme, which has been funded by the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), is carried out by investigators Professor Ciaran Lewis and Drs Matt Zepf, Marco Borghesi and Dave Riley, who are based in the Plasma and Laser Interaction Physics research division.

The programme enables a large and complex laser system to be developed and located in customised space within the £9.3 million International Research Centre for Experimental Physics, which opened recently and was financed through SPUR initiative.

As well as EPSRC funding, the project benefits from a further £ 500,000 donated by Andor Technology. The Belfast-based company, which specialises in scientific camera systems, was recently floated on the stock market and had its roots in the laser group of the Physics department 20 years ago.

The laser system is known as TARANIS (Terawatt Apparatus for Relativistic and Nonlinear Interdisciplinary Science), after the European Celtic god of thunder and lightning.

According to Professor Lewis it is at the heart of the Centre for Lasers and Photonics contained within the University's Institutional Research Strategy.

Highlighting the laser's capabilities, he said that it is capable of delivering a range of intense laser pulses, in various combinations, to a suite of target chambers where exciting and world-leading experiments involving laser-plasma interactions are carried out in extreme conditions.

"The Queen's team have for many years gained access to national and international high power laser facilities to carry out their work and build up an international profile. Now, access to an in-house laser of this class is considered vital to the maintainance of competence, continuity of progress and to the training of research students.

"It is probably fair to say that outside national facilities and other government funded establishments this laser is the most versatile and powerful system in any university-based laboratory world-wide," he said.

The new facility is also attracts collaborations, researchers and students from around the world.

Explaining how the system will work Professor Lewis said synchronised laser beams of nanosecond (10-9 s, or one thousandth of one millionth of a second)), picosecond (10-12 s) and femtosecond (10-15 s) durations are available to enable studies of very transient, short lived phenomena.

Femtosecond pulses represent the timescales that electrons typically move around within molecules and will be of interest to chemists and biologists as well as physicists.

In addition to short duration properties the laser pulses also provide high energy. For example, the picosecond laser will deliver about 20 Joules of energy per pulse putting its power rating at about 20 TW. One terawatt (TW) is a million, million watts (1012 W) so this laser will be about 400 times more powerful than the entire UK National Grid - but only for a very short time!