NPL addresses five areas of research, so-called Science Cases, posing most extreme requirements on optical components and instrumentation to exploit their potential for groundbreaking results. They all exhibit the following characteristics:

  • The specifications for the instruments are so ambitious that they cannot be developed within the community itself and this perception is shared by the community.
  • No commercial supplier is currently capable of realizing the instrumentation, and the required advance development would be economically prohibitive.
  • The technological challenge is completely covered by NPL's expertise
  • The required developments overlap with the other science cases and give rise to synergies within the technology network of NPL.

By developing innovative methods, components and systems NPL enables these science cases to fulfill their scientific mission, and defines a new standard in photonics.


Gravitational waves.
Gravitational waves occur when stars collide. NPL helps making them visible. (Source: Petrovich12 / Fotolia)

Since the dawn of civilization astronomy has been a driving force for progress and development in science and society as a whole. However, many astrophysical processes, and even entire regions of space, can be entirely inaccessible by conventional means. In contrast to photons, gravitational waves can propagate virtually without interaction with any type of matter. After a 50 year-long scientific endeavor researchers of Advanced LIGO succeeded in a sensational measurement of Einstein's predicted gravitational waves. They opened another, entirely new window to the cosmos.

At the heart of the gravitational wave detector lies a cryogenic interferometer comprised of high-performance photonic components that will enable the telescope to perform its unique scientific role. NPL will use its competences in the production of large-scale nanostructures to revolutionize the gravitational wave observatories future understanding of the genesis, state and fate of our universe.
> Science Case Gravitational Wave Astronomy


GAIA space mission to explore the Milky Way galaxy.
Innovative optical spectrometer gratings, made by the Fraunhofer IOF, enabled the GAIA space mission to explore the Milky Way galaxy. (Source: ESA)

Observations of the skies are deeply rooted in many ancient cultures. Modern astronomical observations tend to be oriented towards fundamental questions about the laws of nature that governed the formation of the universe, from the starts down to the elementary particles. Nevertheless, understanding the inner workings of the stars continues to have profound practical implications, e.g. for forecasting fluctuations of the sun's activity to mitigate their potentially severe global impact.

Current developments in optical observation technology aim for large telescopes with primary mirror dimensions of up to 40 m. However, any boost in resolution and aperture of a telescope can only unfold its full potential if the performance of the subsequent instruments can be increased in kind. Along these lines, large-area optical gratings for spectrally resolved measurements are key components, and it is of crucial importance to maximize their efficiency while maintaining wave front accuracy and minimizing any background due to scattered light. NPL's efforts will be directed towards lithographic surface gratings with tailor-made parameters in accordance with the end user's demands. NPL leverages its long-standing expertise to raise the large area telescope to science resources of 21st century.
> Science Case Astrophotonics


Observing and manipulating inner atomic processes with extreme laser light.
Extreme light sources will pave the way for a deeper understanding of inner atomic processes. NPL will establish them as an easy accessible standard tool.

Classical light microscopy enabled a number of seminal discoveries on spatial scales that remain hidden to the naked eye. Likewise, pulsed lasers allow for the observations on shortest timescales accessible by humans so far and control of ultrafast processes on the order of sub-femtoseconds, such as chemical reactions.

In order to gain more detailed insights into the structure of matter at atomic length- and time scales, two complementary approaches exist: Free electron lasers and HHG-sources have produced the shortest events to date with pulse lengths <100 attoseconds. Sources of either type are currently enjoying a rapidly growing demand and availability, as they are of great interest for fundamental research in medicine, pharmaceutics, biology, chemistry and physics, as well as for applications in semiconductor technology.

The crucial challenge lies in the development of optical components that can meet the extreme demands posed by XUV- and X-ray light sources. The goal is therefore to develop tailor-made freeform optics based on high-performance materials to significantly exploit their full potential of the novel light sources for scientific studies.
> Science Case Extreme Light Sources


High-intensity ultrashort-pulsed laser system
High-intensity ultrashort-pulsed laser systems bear the potential to push the boundaries of physics far beyond. NPL will provide optical solutions to unleash their full capabilities.

Without a doubt, laser light is also one of the most powerful tools of investigating the structure and composition of materials. On the other hand, high intensities can be employed to induce dramatic changes to the state of matter, such as acceleration of particles to extreme velocities, and to realize novel radiation sources. High-intensity ultrashort-pulsed laser systems therefore are indispensable tools in high-energy physics as well as material processing and biomedical applications.

Optical pulse compression gratings play a crucial role in the quest for ever-shorter pulses and higher peak powers. In addition to a high efficiency, these components have to exhibit large bandwidths and satisfy the most stringent requirements on wave front stability as well as the suppression of scattering. However, the greatest limitation of current laser systems lies in the damage threshold of the compressors. Consequently, future developments hinge on the scaling to larger gratings and the optimization of their damage threshold. Clearly, these demands can only be fulfilled by developing large-area ultra-precise micro- and nanostructure technologies and the synthesis of compatible high-performance optical materials and ultra-low loss optical coatings to elevate high power laser systems to new parameter levels and simultaneously make them more compact.
>Science Case High-intensity laser systems


Quantum communication
Quantum communication will introduce a new era of data security. (Source: braverabbit/Fotolia)

The seemingly exotic laws of the quantum universe are one of the most important scientific achievements of the last century. Progress in science and technology allow for increasingly illustrating quantum physical effects on a macroscopic scale. Applications like quantum computing and quantum communication will have use in daily life in the near future. Even further, entirely new scientific area like quantum sensing, gravitational imaging, quantum navigation and quantum remote imaging will grow.

Quantum technology on a photonic basis has enormous requirements on the specifications of optical components, e.g. low scattering, high reflection and high wavefront precision as well as the possibility to integrate optical functionalities by active correction, free form technology and micro- and nanostructuring. Optics for extreme light sources require substrates with highest form accuracy and lowest roughness on large spatial scales. NPL offers a technological platform to researchers and applicants to provide the required optics and systems with the desired quality from one hand.
>Science Case Quantum optics