Lighting the way

Prof Klaus Muller-Dethlefs, director of the newly-opened Photon Science Institute, hopes to put UK research into this field on to the world map. Christopher Sell reports.

A relatively small handful of scientific academic institutions truly deserve the tag ‘world-leading’. Yet if the director of a new UK facility gets his way, then Manchester may soon join Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Oxford’s Rutherford Appleton facility on the illustrious list of global centres of excellence.

Late last month the University of Manchesterlaunched a world-class research facility, where it is hoped it will pioneer the latest laser and light technologies, and position it at the forefront of world photonic research (the study of the interaction of photons with matter).

The Photon Science Institute (PSI) is a £40m establishment that will be the largest of its kind in the UK. Research will focus on the development and application of new and existing laser technologies across a variety of fields including medicine, pharmaceuticals, and life and physical sciences.

Fresh from York University, where he was chair of physical chemistry and also established the York Centre for Laser Spectroscopy and Photochemistry, Prof Klaus Muller-Dethlefs, director of the PSI, has an established international reputation in physical chemistry and molecular sciences. He is internationally recognised as inventor of the widely adopted zero electron kinetic energy (ZEKE) technique which allows detailed probing of the quantum states of molecules.

Yet the scope and scale of the challenge presented by the new institute are considerable.

‘Photon science spans a huge area: from fundamental research in atomic physics to applied research in engineering with laser symmetry to environmental research using spectroscopic techniques to monitor pollutants,’ said Muller-Dethlefs.

He is very keen for the research and innovation carried out at the centre to have clear industrial potential and to build upon established collaborations with photonic-based industries while stimulating interest among the relevant industry sectors such as biological, physics and materials. He is seeking funding from both pharmaceutical giants who are keen to capitalise on the institute’s research and a number of slightly less cash-rich but highly innovative SMEs.

However, he stressed that this will not mean that the group sacrifices the rigour of the scientific process to rapidly move technology into the marketplace. ‘We are not an institute setting out to press a button and out comes a design,’ he said. ‘We are taking the long-term view by actually providing knowledge and, from fundamental and applied research, transferring this knowledge into information.’

Muller-Dethlefs believes that this long-term view will help the centre to become a global force in photonics. ‘We are very much internationally focused. We are not going to focus just on the UK, it is far too small. We are aiming to be one of the top five photon research institutes in the world.’

He added that to achieve this aim the centre will be collaborating closely with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US, the Max-Born Institute in Germany and Korea’s Advanced Photonics Research Institute.

Perhaps the most widely known application of photonics technology is the role of lasers within the workings of CD and DVD players, but the research carried out at the institute is expected to benefit a far wider range of industries. Muller-Dethlefs has himself secured a patent for a non-invasive glucose test using Raman spectroscopy — the scattering of light by molecules to obtain information on a sample’s chemical composition and molecular structure. He hopes that in a few years he will be able to reveal a device that enables people to measure their blood sugar level without needing to obtain a blood sample.

The institute also aims to develop micro tweezers that are small enough to manipulate micro particles such as biological cells. This is done through splitting a laser beam into several strands to trap separate cells in compartments.

Muller-Dethlefs said that this kind of research could lead to fundamental new insights into the behaviour of different materials and structures. ‘If you look at nanomaterials, you can manipulate and move something from A to B to make something new, to test something that otherwise will be very difficult to assemble and then give you greater understanding of how it works,’ he said.

He is also pioneering a new research collaboration. Prior to his interview with The Engineer he had been at a meeting to discuss how a joint venture with the Greater Manchester Research Alliance could improve the medical research environment in the Manchester area. This NHS-funded project will see the PSI applying a number of its technologies to the medical field. For instance, the group hopes to use optical coherence tomography — a non-invasive imaging technology — to aid in skin cancer detection.

Muller-Dethlefs said that using conventional diagnostic methods surgeons must take a biopsy and wait a number of hours for the sample to be processed. Technology under the spotlight at PSI could enable them to carry out the test in the operating theatre, he claimed.

Research collaborations at the institute will, it is hoped, address a number of other important new areas in photon science. These range from improving understanding of the properties of materials at molecular level, to developing novel techniques such as the use of THz imaging to generate atto-second radiation for ultra-fast bio-medical and X-ray imaging.

With such interesting technologies in the pipeline, some hefty funding in place and such a strong commitment to pushing the boundaries of science it seems likely that the PSI will fulfil its aim of becoming a world leader.

But add to this mix Muller-Dethlefs’ shrewd understanding of the machinations of the business side of academia, and success begins to look like a certainty. ‘To be successful it cannot be just fundamental research, it has to have a large component of applied research.

On the one hand, we want to be involved in research in fundamental applications — the hot topics in science — but we also need to generate income. And if we find that the best way to exploit this is by spinning off some companies then we will do that.’