Automation of high power laser experiments

   School of Physics, Engineering and Technology

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  Dr C Ridgers, Dr Christopher Arran, Dr Steven Wright  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Since the invention of the laser in the 1960s advances in technology have enabled us to reach ever higher laser power. Current lasers operate at the PW (115W) level, with 10-100PW laser systems in development. This is interesting because when such high power lasers interact with matter they rapidly ionise the material to create a plasma. The electric and magnetic fields in such a plasma are so strong that they can accelerate particles to GeV energies in millimetres (compared to many metres in a conventional accelerator). As the electrons are accelerated they also radiate copious amounts of energy as hard x-rays. Such compact particle and radiation sources have many transformative applications in imaging requiring high brightness but spectral tunability (medicine to materials inspection). High power lasers can even create plasmas that are so extreme that they can generate net energy output by nuclear fusion. This range of applications has provided motivation for the UK government to fund the £85M Extreme Photonics Applications Centre (EPAC) at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire.  

The ability to control high-power laser matter interactions is essential for their applications. This is extremely challenging as these interactions are mediated by nonlinear plasma processes which are notoriously hard to control. EPAC will do this by using automated robotic control of the laser system embedded in machine learning controlled loops. This project will address the many outstanding questions in automated control of laser-plasma experiments. For example: Can the automated control loops reveal new nonlinear plasma physics, difficult to predict using our prior ‘human controlled’ methodologies? What do we do when automated experiments predict unexpected results? Can these systems stabilise and control plasmas in real time, unlocking their applications? These questions are at the heart of how we integrate the necessary robotic automation into high power laser research in the most effective way. 

The focus of the project will be to design and build robotic control systems for high-power lasers potentially both at York and in large national laboratories. This project offers the opportunity to gain hands-on experience building robotic control systems for state-of-the-art experiments and to gain proficiency with high performance computing and AI methodologies. The student will also gain experience working in a large team to deliver experiments on the world’s highest power lasers.

This PhD opportunity is part of the Centre of Doctoral Training in Autonomous Robotic Systems for Laboratory Experiments (Albert). It is focused on developing the science, engineering, and socio-technology that underpins building robots required for laboratory automation. Albert will contribute to the development of autonomous robots that conduct laboratory experiments that are cleaner, greener, safer, and cheaper than anything achievable with today's conventional techniques and technologies. Albert research will tackle significant socio-technical problems for science, engineering, social sciences, and the humanities. The YorRobots Executive and the Institute for Safe Autonomy will provide international leadership for this research area. The students will be provided with a rich research environment offering world-class labs and training opportunities. 

Academic entry requirements:

We are looking for a candidate with:

  •  masters (or expected to graduate) a UK upper second class (2:1) degree in physics, engineering, robotics & control, computer science and other related disciplines 
  • strong programming skills in Python/C++, knowledge of ROS and OpenCV is a plus
  • strong communication skills and a team player

How to Apply:

Applicants must apply via the University’s online application system at Please read the application guidance first so that you understand the various steps in the application process. To apply, please select the PhD in Physics for September 2024 entry. 

On the postgraduate application form, please select 'CDT Autonomous Robotic Systems for Lab Experiments' as your source of funding. You do not need to provide a research proposal, just enter the name of the project you wish to apply for.

Computer Science (8) Engineering (12) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

We have fully funded projects available for the September 2024 start. Fully funded for up to 3.5 years by the EPSRC/University and covers (i) a tax-free annual stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£18,622 for 2024-25), (ii) tuition fees, (iii) funding for consumables. Candidates of any nationality are welcome to apply and up to 30% of DTP studentships may be awarded to exceptional international students.

Where will I study?

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