NSERC Prizes 2017: Laurent Drissen
February 7, 2017
Laurent Drissen partnered with ABB Inc. with the ambitious goal of building a new instrument that would allow astronomers to see distant phenomena with incredible detail. In 2005, Drissen and ABB Inc. introduced the SpIOMM imaging Fourier transform spectrometer, a device that lets telescopes see the visible spectrum of every source of light in a field of view a thousand times larger than other spectrometers. Drissen and ABB Inc.’s new technology was so impressive they were soon commissioned to build a second, the even more powerful SITELLE device, now used by astronomers at the Canada–France–Hawaii telescope in Hawaii. Dr. Drissen won one of NSERC's Synergy Awards for Innovation in 2017.
What was really frustrating, when I was a student and young researcher, was precisely to have to limit myself to certain objects or parts of objects among the galaxies and nebulas. We needed a spectrograph that was capable of obtaining data cubes, the spectra of millions of objects at the same time, but that technology didn’t exist at the time.
First of all, our research team practically began from nothing. We had no experience in building equipment, so teaming up with engineers, optics experts, and Fourier transform spectroscopy experts was absolutely fundamental because we did not possess the expertise to do this.
An investment in research and development is a big deal here, and it’s what helped advance our organization. It’s what helps diversify our organization and create the economy of tomorrow. In our case here, we wanted to try to make a breakthrough in astronomy. Even then, that was our goal. We wanted to demonstrate that with the technology we had in Fourier transform, we were able to potentially produce a technological shift.
We’re aware that it’s not a large market, but we know it’s a market that we’re interested in, because astronomy is always pushing the limits of technology. So, this was enough for us to decide that we were going to invest, we were going to work with researchers and our best engineers, and maybe this would lead us to an opportunity.
So, we no longer have to limit ourselves to small sections in small regions of nebulas or galaxies. We can obtain the complete spectrum of these objects, which we absolutely couldn’t do back when the project began, in the early 2000s. So, our latest piece of equipment is SITELLE. SITELLE is attached to an international telescope, the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope. The fact the SITELLE is accessible to researchers from different countries across the world is also very important. I didn’t want a device that was just built for us, for our team. The more people across the world that will use it, the better it will be for us ¬- and for ABB as well.