Skip to main content

You are at:

Lluís Torner: "Few places have the ingredients of Barcelona to become a cutting-edge scientific centre"

02/05/2024 - 11:15 h - Science Ajuntament de Barcelona

Lluís Torner, physicist, doctor and professor, has been director of the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) since its foundation. This internationally renowned centre researches photonics, the science that studies light, its generation and interaction with matter, as well as its applications in technology. A few months after receiving the Gold Medals for Scientific Merit 2023 along with Mercè Boada and Andreu Mas-Colell, we spoke with him to reflect on the future of photonics, its current use and the scientific situation in the country.

Let’s start with a basic one, Lluís: what does photonics offer us?

The importance of photonics can be justified for several reasons. One of them is that it allows us to work with an absolutely extraordinary delicacy, smoothness, care and precision, at the limit of what humanity knows how to do. In other words, without photonics many things would not exist as we know them. This manifests itself in products and services that shape our daily lives and the way we live today. In industries, hospitals and also in the very advancement of science and technology in all kinds of fields.

How multidisciplinary is photonics?

Extremely. Another reason why it is important is precisely because photons are a ubiquitous and universal technological tool. It can be used for all kinds of actions: lighting and imaging, but also for cutting, gluing, detecting, heating, cooling, communicating, diagnosing, curing, and so on. All these applications are behind industrial processes that enable the use of common techniques in many environments such as hospitals, as well as being essential for various areas of the natural sciences or engineering.

Which of these applications do you think has the greatest impact on our daily lives?

The use of photonics is present in many situations around us. Of those that directly affect our lives and define today’s civilisation, even if we are not aware of it. One of them, for example, is its impact on the digital society. Without photonics, the Internet or mobile phones would be much more rudimentary than they are today and, consequently, we would not be able to make the same use of them as we do in today’s society. If we think for a minute about how many elements of our lives are directly or indirectly based on these technologies, we would understand that the presence is already noticeable.

And in what ways will it have a greater presence in the future?

If we look at the years to come, one sector where photonics will make a difference is in medicine. In diagnostic, imaging and therapy devices that are used to perform a more careful and precise study in surgical interventions, for example.

Likewise, in other developing sectors, such as photovoltaic panels that capture solar photons to produce renewable energy or the many laser devices and robotic systems that make countless industrial processes possible, could be tangible examples of the changing world we live in.

What recent developments do you think have been the most revolutionary with respect to this science?

One of the areas that might have been considered science fiction a couple of decades ago is the manipulation of individual quantum systems, and now it is well established. One of these techniques, for example, is the ability to control atoms one by one and observe how they perform genuinely quantum phenomena. Atoms are incredibly small. Think about it: there are more atoms in a single glass of water than there are glasses of water in all the Earth’s oceans put together. And yet they are routinely monitored and observed today.

Do you work with any of these revolutionary techniques at ICFO?

Yes, we are. At ICFO, Dr. Leticia Tarruell and her team are building a quantum processor that is unique in the world, called Quíone after the Greek goddess of snow. Its uniqueness is that it studies by controlling individual atoms in ultra-cold temperatures. It has taken a dozen Nobel Prize winners to make it possible. We are living at the time of the Second Quantum Revolution and, in the future, we will hear a lot about it.

You spoke earlier about the involvement of photonics in the revolution in medicine. Do you see a future where disease prevention through photons and nanoscience is getting closer and closer?

Nanomedicine is a fascinating area. It is a clear example of the current paradigm in which important advances require contributions from different areas of knowledge. In this case, advances are needed in new materials, biotechnologies, photonics, engineering, algorithms, medicine, chemistry, among others. This area seeks to advance in personalised medicine techniques, as well as in the identification and understanding of the very origin of diseases at the molecular and cellular level. Of course, the central questions here are provided by biology and medicine, which are supported by other technological advances. Photonics brings the ability to detect things with exquisite precision and in a minimally invasive way.

What are the limitations of photonics today?

I will highlight just one. Photonics is particularly important in bringing scientific advances to society. I am referring to integration, i.e. the ability to make ever smaller, more compact and cheaper devices. The impact that electronics has had and will have on our civilisation is precisely due to its almost inconceivable ability to integrate millions and millions of devices on a single chip. The chip in some toothbrushes today has more memory and computing power than the equivalent chip in the Apollo spacecraft that landed on the moon. Photonic chips do not aspire to reach the same level, but they do need to advance in miniaturisation, which will allow important advances to be brought to society that are now only in the scientific domain.

We recently had the pleasure of talking to Gustavo Deco, one of the leading figures in neuroscience in our country, and he told us that for now “the brain does not have a theory”. Thanks to photonics, will we manage to discover it?

How right Dr Deco is! It will take everything to make progress in this field. A human brain contains some 86 billion neurons, along with a similar number of other non-neuronal cell types. How do they work together? Generally speaking, a living thing is possibly the most wonderful thing in the entire Universe. How do the ten million individual cells manage to organise themselves into a human being and keep it functioning for many decades, in some rare cases almost a century, often with very few mistakes that themselves cannot repair? To partially answer these questions, it will take everything. Photonics as well? Of course.

Do you think that the value of disclosure is growing within the scientific community compared to past times?

Carl Sagan, one of the most famous and successful popularisers in history, insisted on the question that can be paraphrased as: “Who makes decisions about science and technology in a democracy if the public does not know about them? This challenge has always been important, but at a point where science and technology use a very technical language, in the age of so-called artificial intelligence, neuroscience and the need to develop technologies to reverse climate change, the question is more topical than ever.

Why do you think this is important?

It is absolutely vital to disseminate scientific advances and their implications, so that the public as a whole can adopt rational and well-informed positions on all the new developments and changes that are taking place.

What lines of work would you highlight at ICFO at the moment?

One of the clear examples would be the leadership of Quantica, an initiative that aims to transform Catalonia into a champion of quantum sciences and technologies, and which includes among others the Qollserola project, a quantum cybersecurity network that will provide reinforced computer security to the communications networks of entities and companies in Barcelona. We also lead the Barcelona Medical Photonics Network, in which almost all the city’s hospitals participate. Another example is the Planeta Net programme, which brings together photonic technologies aimed at sustainability and clean energy and which we started up thanks to the support of the Mir-Puig and Ribas Araquistain Foundations and Barcelona City Council.

A few months ago, you were awarded the Gold Medal for Scientific Merit. How did you feel about this recognition?

It was an immense honour, which was also shared with people I admire and love. Barcelona has an innovative, modern, advanced soul, ideal for science. I had the honour of saying it when I read the Pregón de la Mercè a few years ago: not many places in this part of the world have the ingredients that Barcelona enjoys to become a nucleus of global scientific vanguard.