Mr. Weeks, how would you explain "ELI" to a ten-year-old child?

ELI stands for "Extreme Light Infrastructure". These are the strongest lasers in the world. There are of course other lasers that are quite powerful, too. But they are used more for specific purposes like nuclear fusion energy. The ones that we have are used for general scientific research. So, you can use our lasers to experiment with them. And you must know about the lasers that they are as big as several rooms. Also, you don’t stand in front of them. They are not a continuous beam like a light bulb. The beam works in pulses. Like the flash of a camera. And these flashes are very important, because you can use the laser basically to take photos of something. Or you can hit something with it and see how it reacts. And these particular pulses are very, very short. And that’s important for two reasons: If you take a certain amount of energy and you imagine that you squeeze it. It stays the same amount of energy, but it is more intense. We compress these pulses down to very, very short periods to one trillionth of a billionth of a second. And that is how long it takes light to cross an atom. That makes the lasers very intense. During the flash in about a femtosecond you can basically produce a pulse that has all the power the world uses in a day. So, in one attosecond you can basically have all the energy the world uses in a day. And the shorter we can make those pulses, the more things we can see up to that atomic level. This is why it is exciting for scientists, because now they can see things they have never seen before.

And what are "ELI-DC", "ELI-ERIC" and "ELI-ALPS"?

ELI-DC means ELI Delivery Consortium, and it was established in 2013 with the aim to promote the sustainable development and coordinated implementation of the ELI laser research facilities in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania. To that end, the goal has always been to establish ELI as a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ELI-ERIC), a world-leading organisation that will operate and fund ELI with pan-European and international members. ELI-ALPS is the name of the Hungarian pillar of the ELI network in Szeged. ALPS stands for Attosecond Light Pulse Source. It will be dedicated to extremely fast dynamics by taking snap-shots in the attosecond scale of the electron dynamics in atoms, molecules, plasmas and solids. It will pursue research with ultra-high-intensity lasers. An attosecond is a billionth of a billionth of a second.

# Photo: Nóra Halász

What makes ELI so important for Europe?

ELI has been one of the most important scientific projects in Europe for the last decade. There is a big group called the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, or ESFRI, which decided that ELI is one of the top projects in all of Europe to build. It is not just very interesting for scientific research. It is politically important, too. If you want Europe to be a balanced place you need to distribute the research facilities instead of having them located in one area.

You are the General Manager of ELI-DC. What exactly is your job in this project?

What we have been doing is planning for almost six years now to form ELI-ERIC. But the facilities must be finished before we can start ELI-ERIC. And that is where we are now. We are very close to be finished with the buildings and to start ELI-ERIC. So, it is my job to bring not only the three host countries together, but also bring Germany, Italy, France and the UK into that. There are not many very big science labs that are jointly shared. There are some in other countries like France, Germany or, for example, CERN, the big lab in Switzerland.

Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania are the three ELI locations. Is there a specific reason for that?

First of all, because they wanted to do that. Secondly, they could do that, because they were able to use the European Structural Funds to construct the facilities. And thirdly, the Commission and all the other relevant European entities liked the idea to give these countries the opportunity to develop their science and technology further. ELI helps to take advantage of the smart people living here and it gives them a reason to stay in their countries and be able to do research on-site.

And why was the city of Szeged chosen as the Hungarian location?

You can see that a lot of things centre around Budapest. But sometimes it has advantages to do things also outside of Budapest. Szeged was chosen mainly because the University of Szeged had some background with lasers that can be leveraged for partnership projects. Szeged is an ideal town for the project also in that the airport is not too far and it is easy to be reached on the motorway. It has a well-developed city infrastructure and a vivid cultural life that ensures that the stay of the scientists coming from around the world will be comfortable. Once ELI is ready, it is very likely that other research facilities and companies will be built in that area.

Is the facility in Szeged finished?

The building was already completed in June 2017. Most of the beam-lines where experiments take place should be in place by the beginning of next year. Lasers, like a lot of scientific instruments, can’t just be plugged in and be ready for use. You need two or three years to kind of slowly turn them on. It is like you had a Formula 1 car. You don’t just take it out on a track and push the gas to the limit. You slowly ease into it and test everything. Because if not, you can crank it up right away and maybe damage something. And that is what we call the commissioning period. So, we are on a good track with the facility. The scientists are already knocking on the door and want to use the facility.

Is anyone using it already?

As we are still in the commissioning phase, we are having "friendly users" in the facility in Szeged. Friendly user means that you can use the instruments, but only in a test mode. The experiences gained in this process will help us get the lasers prepared for the live operational phase. We have had test users since November 2017. For example, we had teams from France and Greece some weeks ago. So, it is already possible to use the lasers, but the live experiments will start from next year.

You have been the Director General of ELI-DC for almost two years now. What were the greatest obstacles you had to face?

For such a large and ambitious project, it is understandable that some challenges arise. For example, in Romania they have a technically very challenging construction that will take them more time to build it. I think things are going quite smooth in Szeged and Prague. The biggest challenge has been to reach an agreement between the non-host countries to establish ELI-ERIC. We hoped that France, Germany, Italy and the UK would join sooner, but for different reasons they couldn’t get their commitments in place. This can be a problem for the host countries like Hungary, because they are ready to go on with the operations and expect other countries to contribute financially. For now, only the Hungarian, Czech and Romanian governments are covering most of the cost of this, and the host countries should not pay for everything. But recent success in negotiations with the non-host countries to join ELI-ERIC are promising.

What do you say about the three scientists who left the Szeged facility in protest?

It was just partly a misunderstanding. We have in every facility what is called a scientific advisory committee. It’s a group of scientists who meet once a year. And the scientists who are working inside the project present to that committee the progress of the project. The committee gives feedback and advises them. This advisory committee has been meeting for six years now. Now we are in the critical phase between the construction and operation. And since last year there is a new Minister for Innovation and Technology, László Palkovics, who wanted to get to know the project. As he is not an expert in laser science, he asked experts to come and take a look at the project. The advisory committee and the new experts had different opinions regarding the direction of the facility. Therefore, three scientists left the committee. But this is not an unusual thing when an operational phase begins. What is a little bit more unusual is that it becomes a big public debate. I think part of the reason it became so public is that minister Palkovics has been proactive himself in trying to move the project forward. And what happened at the same time is that the manager of the facility in Szeged decided to leave as well. Mr. László Jakab is the new interim manager. His management background is very important in that phase we are in. And Prof. Katalin Varjú is the scientific director of the facility. She has been on the project for six years and knows how to build and use the lasers. I think it was the ministry’s intention to get the project on a good track to be part of ELI-ERIC.

What are the differences and similarities between ELI and the projects you managed before?

Sometimes when an international project like ELI is put into a country, the local scientists may have the view that funds have been taken away from their own potential budgets. When I worked on a similar project in the Swedish city of Lund I saw the same reaction. The reality is that’s not the case. The money that was spent to build ELI was mostly using European Structural Funds, which were not part of the national science budget. From that perspective, I would say that ELI is an opportunity. It is a world-class facility right in your own backyard. The lasers are so flexible that a lot of different scientists can use them from biology to astrophysics. They just need to write a proposal to use ELI.

How is the project financed besides the EU funding of 85%?

The 85% EU funds are just for the construction of the facilities. We are now in the process of negotiation to figure out who pays how much for operations. There are certain advantages if you are the host. For example, if I host ELI in Szeged I am getting operational and financial support from other countries – like Germany. That is basically foreign investment. But on the other hand, it makes sense for Germany to spend money here and not on their own labs. And the reason for that is simply because ELI is leading in the world in terms of lasers. It has the biggest collection of the world’s most interesting and powerful lasers. And the users can come here and use it and don’t have to take care of the lasers and maintain them. That is what we call a user facility. But of course, you can’t just show up and experiment with them. You need to write a scientific proposal. And those proposals are getting compared by a scientific evaluation committee. Over time we will look at the accepted proposals. If there are a lot of proposals from one country, this country should pay more. So, if there are a lot of German scientists using the facility, Germany should pay more than a country that is using it less. But we don’t know that for now. Hungary has already invested significant funds into this project. And now will continue to invest every year also in the operation phase. So, the host country pays in the beginning more. I think it will cost around several million euros annually to operate with all these countries contributing to that. There are UK studies that say you get six pounds back for every pound you invest. Most of that will have a socioeconomic impact in the host countries.

As the United Kingdom is a founding member of ELI, will Brexit change anything for the project?

We were worried about that for a while. Last week we had a meeting and our colleague from the UK assured us that they will still be able to join ELI. And that was very good news.

Can you tell me an example for the use of Extreme Light Infrastructure?

Lasers are used in many ways. In industry and every day in our lives. One of the benefits ELI-APLS can offer is to explore the idea of transmutation. It can help to reduce the half-time of radioactive waste. That is an initiative by Gérard Mourou, who was last year’s Nobel Prize winner in physics. He is a French laser scientist and he is the father of ELI. He has had this idea for a long time that you can use lasers to speed up dominant particles, like a neutron. You can cause the neutron to bump into other neutrons, which creates controlled reactions. And with that you can take materials that are radioactive and change their atomic structure, which makes them less radioactive. Instead of being radioactive for 30,000 years, it reduces the half-life down to a couple of hundred years. That is still a long time for a human. But it makes it much more manageable to find storage for nuclear waste. We won’t handle nuclear waste at ELI in Szeged, but with our experiments we can demonstrate that lasers can be used for that. It won’t happen tomorrow, but it looks very promising.

Allen Weeks has been managing with research infrastructures since 2005. This provides him with a broad and detailed understanding and network in the European context. Weeks has a Bachelor ‘sDegree in Telecommunications and a Master’s in Business Administration. Before ELI-DC, he led the collaborative efforts to establish and build the European Spallation Source ERIC (ESS) a EUR 2 Billion project in Lund, Sweden. Weeks has lived in several European countries since 1992 and calls Slovenia his home. He was born in the United States, in Alabama.

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