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Czech researchers test lasers in Europe’s Extreme Light Infrastructure.

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Romania left out of high-powered laser project

The €950 million Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI), taking shape in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania, will give scientists some of the most powerful lasers on the planet, potentially leading to breakthroughs in everything from cancer therapy to the treatment of nuclear waste—while boosting research in some of Europe’s poorer regions. It took another step forward on 30 April when the European Commission approved the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) to shift control from a loose confederation of national initiatives to a single international umbrella.

But Romania has been left in the rain: It was omitted from ERIC, following a dispute over a gamma ray source central to its facility. And two rich members of ELI, France and the United Kingdom, have pulled out, leaving a smaller, less financially secure club.

ELI was first proposed by Gérard Mourou, a physicist at the École Polytechnique near Paris who won a Nobel Prize for ways to compress laser beams into short pulses of astonishing power. The three Eastern European nations were chosen as hosts in 2009 because they could draw on EU “structural funds”—normally used by poorer EU members for infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

The project is well along. At ELI-Beamlines near Prague, researchers have begun first experiments with lasers that will reach up to 10 petawatts in power, yielding x-rays and ions for use in materials science, astrophysics, and biomedicine. In the south of Hungary, ELI Attosecond Light Pulse Source (ELI-ALPS) will chop lasers into short pulses to explore how electrons move in atoms and molecules. And ELI Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP), on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania, is meant to generate intense beams of gamma rays, which, when combined with light from two 10-petawatt lasers, will probe atomic nuclei and the quantum vacuum.

EuroGammaS, a consortium of public research institutes and industry, delivered much of the gamma ray source to ELI-NP in 2018 but said the lab floor was uneven and refused to install the components. ELINP managers insisted the floor was OK and fined EuroGammaS for its delay—which the consortium contested in court in October 2018. A month later, ELI-NP canceled its €67 million contract with EuroGammaS and later hired a U.S. company, Lyncean Technologies, to build it. EuroGammaS returned to court to reinstate its contract.

ELI Director General Allen Weeks points out that some EuroGammaS members, such as Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), are also part of ELI—creating an unprecedented internal conflict. “I can’t remember member institutions ever taking others to court.” Fearing the spat would cause other members to walk away, Weeks says, ELI’s governing assembly decided in March 2019 to push ahead with an ERIC for just ELI-Beamlines and ELI-ALPS.

That wasn’t enough to keep France in the consortium, however. Its departure in the summer of 2019 was a particular disappointment, Weeks says. “People really expected that France would not only be in, but leading somehow.” The United Kingdom followed in November 2020. ERIC now has just four members: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, and Lithuania (with Germany and Bulgaria joining as observers). Ultimately, it will need to attract other members to contribute to operational costs. “It’s not sustainable for the host countries to provide 100% funding, that is clear,” says ELI-Beamlines project director Roman Hvězda .

Despite the ill will over the affair, which the Romanian Academy described in May 2020 as “concerted actions to discredit Romania,” Weeks hopes the country will eventually become a member. But other ERIC nations have conditions; in June 2020 they released a statement saying ELINP’s management needs to demonstrate “good faith cooperation and capability to run an international facility in a transparent and verifiable way.”

Some researchers in Romania are disillusioned. George Epurescu, a laser physicist at the National Institute for Laser, Plasma and Radiation Physics, is critical of Victor Zamfir, former head of ELI-NP. Epurescu accuses him of using the delay with the gamma source as a way to acquire more power over the center and its finances. Zamfir, who was removed from ELI-NP in August 2020 by Romania’s research minister, did not respond to questions from Science. The ongoing turbulence raises doubts that ELI-NP will open on schedule by the end of 2023, as its EU funding stipulates. In a 2020 statement, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms Elisa Ferreira said the European Union may impose a “financial correction” if the lab cannot meet the deadline. Epurescu says that will be difficult given a shortage of trained laser physicists in the country.

Others have concerns about Lyncean’s ability to deliver the gamma ray source. Unlike EuroGammaS, it has yet to publish any peer-reviewed papers on the source, says Luca Serafini, an INFN nuclear physicist who was part of EuroGammaS. “It is not in the scientific mainstream.” Benjamin Hornberger, product manager at Lyncean, says the company is confident it can deliver the source by early 2023, although delays from the pandemic have led to a “tight project schedule.”

It would be a big disappointment if ELINP lacks the gamma source that is its raison d’etre. But Weeks reckons that even without it, the center could do worthwhile research. In the end, he says, “It is too big to fail.”