His most recent success involves an optical system with an amplifier that does not produce noise. It will probably be possible to use the amplifier in
sensor technology, spectroscopy, biomedical applications and quantum
"The undesired noise that results when amplifying light is always a major dilemma," he says. ”The low level of noise means light reaches four times further in an optical fiber.”
Peter Andrekson, professor of photonics, is a cosmopolite. During his research career, he has taken every opportunity to work and perform research abroad. He spent several years in the U.S. as a postdoc and four more years there at the beginning of the 2000s. He worked at Bell Labs between 1989 and 1992 where he was involved in producing the erbium doped fiber amplifier that revolutionised the telecom industry.
When we meet him at his office at the Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience in the MC2 building, he explains that the Internet would not function as it does today without the erbium doped fiber amplifier. It is considered to be the second major step in optical communication. The first came as early as 1970 when production began of lasers that function at room temperature and fiber with low levels of loss.
The sedentary way of thinking he has encountered in the world of research is something to which he has given a lot of thought. He believes the attitude is too prevalent and works to thwart it whenever he can. He always advises his doctoral students to move from time to time.
"In general, I think we could be better at encouraging mobility at Chalmers. A certain amount gives input and new ideas."
"I personally feel like a world citizen, which has impacted my choices. I think this is partially the result of my Estonian roots."
Peter's father came to Sweden during World War II at age 13. He arrived on a boat of refugees from Pärnu, Estonia with his sister who was ten years older. Their father died before the war, and his mother was deported to Siberia when she was 40 years old. Her only crime was being born into a wealthy family. It was only after ten years had passed that her children found out where she had been transferred. She was released from the labour camp 29 years later when she was almost 70 years old.
"She came to her children in Sweden in the 1970s, and lived the rest of her life here. She died when she was 97. It was as if she wanted to relish her freedom as long as possible."
Thoughts about the sacrifices his father, aunt and grandmother made have impacted Peter.
"The Red Cross and other aid organisations took care of the siblings, but they basically had to cope on their own. My father was not given any language training. Or money. Or support. Yet he coped somehow, learned Swedish and went to school here. He eventually applied to Chalmers. He studied during the day and worked at Jonsereds Fabriker at night. He graduated in 1959 with a degree in civil engineering.”
Peter learned Estonian at the Estniska skolan in Gothenburg, which was located at Johannebergsskolan. He describes his subsequent academic choices as somewhat random since he was, as is often the case at that age, uncertain about what he wanted to do. He chose the natural science programme in upper secondary school because he wanted to keep his options open. He chose electrical engineering at Chalmers because his classmates were not too nerdy and because the technology there is more practicable all over the world than e.g. medicine and law.
It is actually thanks to former Professor Sverre Eng that Peter Andrekson became a researcher. Part of Peter's degree project involved designing the laser that is still found on the windowsill in his office. When Peter was in the final phases of his project in 1984, he ran into the professor in the car park outside Chalmers.
"He was a Nordic pioneer in optical communication, and he convinced me that it was an industry of the future with great international opportunities. This way of thinking was not a matter of course back then."
Since 1992 when he got back from his years at Bell Labs, Peter has continued developing technologies that can pack the channels in fiber optics more closely together.
His most recent success involves an optical system with an amplifier that does not produce noise.
"The undesired noise that results when amplifying light is always a major dilemma," he says. The low level of noise means light reaches four times further in an optical fiber."
It will probably be possible to use the amplifier in sensor technology, spectroscopy, biomedical applications and quantum optics.
Not least because of the successful experiment and the fact that he has competitors all over the world breathing down his neck, Peter is very pleased about having received major funding totalling SEK 40 million last autumn from the European Research Council, ERC, and from the Wallenberg Foundation. The funding offers freedom and independence for several years to come.
"We are world leaders in the field, and it is now time to take the next step – to application."
He turned 50 a couple of years ago, and with that came the realisation that he must start taking advantage of the time he has, which means not only working, but also prioritising time for himself as well. He has started removing tasks that are not absolutely necessary in order to free up personal time.
"I have also learned to delegate more," he says.
His Estonian roots have grown in importance as he has got older.
For example, Peter is a member of a scholarship committee that selects students from the technical university in Tallinn to study free of charge at Chalmers for two years. Thus far, 75 students have been selected, and there will in all likelihood be more to come. His ties with his native country are also reinforced by his personal life since his fiancée lives in Tallinn.
Text: Marianne Lesslie
Published in 30 May 2012