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Key sectors

Applied technologies

Cutting-edge research facilities = ingenious ideas

Laval University’s Centre for
Optics, Photonics and
Laser Technology (COPL)
A bright light attracts a lot of
brilliant researchers!

If scientists around the world tend to think of Quebec City whenever the conversation turns to optics or photonics, it may be thanks to Laval University’s Centre for Optics, Photonics and Laser Technology.

  • Year founded : 1989
  • Annual research budget : CA$4 million to $5 million
  • 34 researchers across Quebec, including 22 at Laval University
  • 160 students and interns at Laval University
  • Between 1949 and 2007, Laval University awarded a total of 406 master’s degrees and 210 doctorates in optics and photonics
  • 120 patents granted over the past 30 years
  • More than 2,000 articles and conferences since 1982

Key research areas
  • Lasers and short-duration pulses
  • Guided and fibre optics
  • Optical communications
  • Instrumentation, metrology and imaging
  • Biophotonics

Quebec City’s optics/photonics sector
  • 30 companies, half of which were founded by COPL graduates
  • 2,200 jobs, including 900 research positions

Light is an enduring source of fascination for COPL’s team of physicists, chemists and electrical engineers. Light’s electromagnetic wave properties are at the heart of unprecedented advances in all areas of human endeavour, including telecommunications (where fibre optics have driven the expansion of the Internet) and the medical field (with lasers used in non-invasive eye surgery).

Laval University is the central component of COPL, which comprises researchers at five Quebec universities. The Centre’s mandate is to carry out applied as well as basic research. To take one example, a specialized team is studying how matter interacts with incredibly intense laser pulses that last for as little as a femtosecond, or 10-15 seconds. “We’re beginning to get a handle on the technology, in addition to the various phenomena we’ve observed,” says COPL director Réal Vallée. How will a living cell react if exposed to an intense burst of light only a few femtoseconds in duration? “According to our hypothesis, a treatment could be developed to exclusively target unhealthy cells,” he says. “But we won’t stop there. We’re going to install a laser chain that generates pulses with a duration of around one attosecond, or 10-18 seconds.”

Multi-disciplinary partnership

Cutting-edge research of this nature can only be undertaken within a multi-disciplinary partnership, such as COPL. When the Centre was founded in 1989, physicists and electrical engineers with an interest in optics began working together. They have since been joined by chemists and biologists.

The teamwork philosophy was reinforced two years ago when the researchers relocated to the same facility at Laval University. “You can’t find innovative solutions if you’re overly focused on your own area of expertise. When you’re under the same roof, you end up sharing the same equipment and lab facilities, so you talk to your colleagues more. Proximity fosters communication—and that’s how great ideas are born!”

Speaking of great ideas, COPL has been awarded a patent for an opto-electronic zoom lens, consisting of a flat lens five times thinner than a sheet of paper that zooms in and out with no moving parts. The researchers are considering a number of applications for the lens, such as cellphone cameras. A start-up company is currently working to develop the invention.

Pioneering role

Laval University has been a centre for optics research for 60 years. Researchers were studying light-related phenomena 10 years before lasers were even invented,” notes Mr. Vallée, who is rightfully proud of the institution’s pioneering role. A number of acclaimed experts at the university also helped lay the groundwork for COPL. In the 1970s and 1980s, Laval University was already training more than half of the optics researchers in Canada.

This critical mass paved the way for the development of the optics industry in the region. “We realized that with industrial applications and sector growth, we could promote our discoveries to Quebec companies without having to relocate to Silicon Valley,” says Mr. Vallée. Despite the collapse of the high-tech bubble in the early 2000s, a number of local optics firms are still in business and pursuing development opportunities.

Biophotonics: a growing field

In the past few years, many researchers began setting their sights on biophotonics—the life sciences applications of photonics technology. “The technologies developed for telecommunications, like certain types of lasers and fibre optics, have been adapted to the study of biological systems,” says the COPL director. Fibre optics and laser imaging are now part of the arsenal of techniques used to study, diagnose and treat various diseases. Moreover, in September 2008, Laval University began offering graduate and doctoral-level biophotonics programs.

Training the best minds

In addition to research, COPL is responsible for providing optics and photonics training. Students come primarily from Quebec, France, Germany and China, with 70% of the post-doc interns and 40% of the students at the master’s and doctoral levels from outside Canada. COPL’s world-class research profile, industry-adapted training, state-of-the-art research facilities and multi-disciplinary approach are all important factors in attracting students. Réal Vallée has good reason to place such an emphasis on teamwork!

Lisa-Marie Noël

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