“Swiss Nobel Prize” for Ursula Keller

The physics professor Ursula Keller has received the Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist for her pioneering work in ultrafast lasers. Her theoretical models and experimental discoveries have repeatedly tested the boundaries of ultrafast laser physics.
Ursula Keller has received the Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist for her pioneering work in ultrafast lasers. (Image: Heidi Hostettler)

Ever since the laser was invented, scientists have been keen to use the technology – to transform materials, for example. Unfortunately this was not possible with continuous-wave lasers, as they were too imprecise, and unsuitable for heat-sensitive materials. The eventual solution was to use a pulsed laser beam, although this required more complex technology. ETH Professor Ursula Keller solved the problem by using semiconductors, and in 1991 invented SESAM technology (Semiconductor Saturable Absorber Mirror).

With SESAM, she handed science, industry and medicine a new instrument that enabled previously unimaginably precise interventions. SESAM makes it possible to send light pulses from solid-state lasers at femtosecond intervals. One femtosecond is equivalent to one millionth of one billionth of a second (10-15). Over this incredibly short time it is possible to measure the movement of atoms, for example, or investigate the mechanisms of chemical reactions.

As professor in the Department of Physics, Ursula Keller has continued to develop the SESAM concept. She also succeeded in producing ever shorter laser pulses, until only one or two light oscillations were contained in one laser pulse. However, these oscillations were not synchronised from one pulse to the next, which was a critical factor for the development of further applications. The solution to this problem led to a revolution in frequency measurement and the invention of the most accurate clocks in the world: the “optical clock” and the “attoclock”. The optical clock allows time measurement to be improved by a factor of roughly five in comparison with existing standards. The attoclock is so accurate that it can measure the fundamental processes of quantum mechanics, such as the speed of electron tunnelling.

«I would like to thank my incredible research group, along with all the postdocs, doctoral students and external partners who made this work possible.»      Ursula Keller

“The epitome of Swiss excellence in research”

Scientists see the Marcel Benoist Prize, worth 250,000 Swiss francs, as a type of Swiss Nobel Prize. It is awarded together with the Fondation Latsis prize and is to be presented on 3 November 2022. This year the Latsis prize for young researchers up to the age of 40 goes to Professor Kerstin Noëlle Vokinger at the University of Zurich. Guy Parmelin, Member of the Federal Council and President of the Marcel Benoist Foundation, congratulates the award winners: “We are delighted to award our top Swiss science prizes this year to Ursula Keller and Kerstin Noëlle Vokinger. Both are outstanding scientists and the epitome of Swiss excellence in research.”

Naturally Ursula Keller is delighted as well: “It’s an incredible honour to receive the Marcel Benoist Prize, in recognition of almost 30 years of applied and basic research at ETH Zurich. It’s also the first science award I have received in Switzerland. I would like to thank my incredible research group, along with all the postdocs, doctoral students and external partners who made this work possible.

This award is very special to me. My appointment as the first female professor of physics at ETH Zurich, coming straight from the USA, was partly thanks to a policy of recruiting more female scientists to leadership roles. That’s why I am particularly glad to see this award confirm that such initiatives really do help promote integration and excellence.”

Joël Mesot, President of ETH Zurich, comments how much the professor deserves this accolade: “Ursula Keller is an outstanding scientist. As a pioneer in ultrafast laser research, she has made a huge impact in her specialist field. She epitomises the quality of research for which ETH is renowned, made possible through the generous support of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the institutions of the ETH Domain, with funding from the Federal Government.”

Extremely versatile technology

The principle of SESAM has made the industrial application of short-pulsed lasers possible. Today they are used in a variety of practical applications: for cutting virtually any material, for surface treatment, or in the production of computers and smartphones. They are also used in medical technology, where laser pulses are deployed, for example, as scalpels in eye operations. In addition, ultrafast laser technology can be used in the development of high-precision measuring instruments.

About Ursula Keller

Ursula Keller was born in 1959 in Zug, Switzerland, and studied physics at ETH Zurich. She went on to complete her master’s degree and PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford University, USA. From 1989 onwards she worked at AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey. She was appointed associate professor in 1993 at ETH Zurich and Full Professor of Quantum Electronics in 1997. From 2010 to 2022 Ursula Keller was Director of the interdisciplinary research programme NCCR MUST (Molecular Ultrafast Science and Technology) launched by the Swiss National Science Foundation. In 2012 she also founded the ETH Women Professors Forum, which she chaired up to 2016. Ursula Keller is the recipient of numerous awards for her research, including the prestigious European Inventor Award – the first woman to receive the award from the European Patent Office for her lifetime achievement. In 2021 she was elected member of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA.

Marcel Benoist Foundation

Since 1920 the Marcel Benoist Foundation has awarded annual prizes – independently and across all universities – for outstanding research that is important for human life. In this way it honours scientists whose work exemplifies Switzerland’s standing as a top research location. Eleven past prize winners have also received the Nobel Prize. Since 2018 the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has carried out the nomination and evaluation process on behalf of the Marcel Benoist Foundation. The 2022 prize will be awarded in the field of mathematics, natural sciences and engineering.

More information can be found under www.marcel-benoist.ch/en