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Laser Physicist Wins Emerging Scientist Award

Dr Miro Erkintalo from the University of Auckland’s Department of Physics has won the MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Award at this year’s Prime Minister’s Science Prizes.

Dr Erkintalo is a principal investigator at the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies and his work is in non-linear photonics and laser physics. He develops new laser technologies and studies how intense laser light interacts with matter.

Scientists are constantly pushing at the boundaries of what lasers can do. One of the most important applications of lasers today is the internet, where a laser beam – with a particular wavelength or frequency – is encoded with information and sent through optical fibres so that information is transmitted virtually instantly.

Existing optical fibre networks use hundreds of lasers with slightly different wavelengths to increase the amount of information that can be squeezed through a single optical fibre. One of Dr Erkintalo’s main areas of research focuses on generating multiple laser beams from a single laser beam through a technology called a microresonator frequency comb.

These combs are capable of replacing hundreds of lasers used in existing telecommunications systems with just one, thus improving the systems’ performance and energy-efficiency.

“The capacity of light to carry information through optical fibres is much, much larger than the alternatives but even so, there is a constant demand for more and more bandwidth,” he says.

Besides telecommunications, the research has potential applications in technologies as diverse as self-driving cars and detection of planets outside our solar system.

“What I love about my work is that while it involves fundamental physics, we are also pushing at the boundaries of what lasers can do and how they might play a vital role in technologies of the future.”

Originally from Finland, Dr Erkintalo came to New Zealand eight years ago, planning to complete two years as a post-doctoral research fellow but after almost a decade, he considers New Zealand home.

He credits teamwork within the Department of Physics for the ability to perform excellent science.

“I feel super privileged to be working with an incredible number of talented people, and winning this award is really a testament to what an excellent team we have.”

The Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize is worth 200,000, with $50,000 going directly to the recipient and $150,000 to support their ongoing work.

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