Q&A with Ishay Pomerantz

Meet the Zuckerman Faculty Scholar Ishay Pomerantz at Tel Aviv University, studying “Nuclear Phototonics Research Group

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This is one of the most powerful lasers in the world. It’s very exciting to use it to test our understanding of how light and matter interact with each other. Thanks to the Zuckerman Program we could afford this lab, where we host researchers from the US and conduct joint studies.”

Dr. Ishay Pomerantz heads the Nuclear Photonics research group at Tel Aviv University (NePTUN). His lab investigates how intense light can accelerate particles to high energies and use these particles to study the areas of science at the meeting point between material science, plasma physics and nuclear physics.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Pomerantz worked in the Texas Petawatt laser facility where he developed a method for laser generation of intense, ultra-short bursts of neutrons. Recognized for his brilliance and entrepreneurship, Dr. Pomerantz leads a high intensity laser facility that was built at the university with seed funds raised from the university and from competitive grant programs. He hopes his research will help lower the cost and size of neutron generators, and lead to more widespread use of intense laser systems for research and for social applications.

Please describe your current research, the focus of your lab, and the practical implications of your research.

The topics of our research projects span the interface between plasma, and nuclear physics. We study the interaction of intense light with matter, which in general can be very violent, and produce many types of radiation, like energetic x-rays, gamma-rays, protons, neutrons, and positrons which are all expelled together when we bombard targets with our laser. The aim of our research projects is to understand the origin of each type of emitted radiation. Once we understand how the radiation is generated, we hope to be able to tame it to be used for research, security and medical applications. Many of these applications, e.g. cancer treatment using proton radiation, or cargo container scanning using neutron radiation, are limited today by the enormous size and costs of conventional accelerator machines, so there is a strong motivation for finding new relatively compact and cost-effective radiation generators.

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What do you enjoy most about your research?

In our lab it’s not uncommon to see a micrometer and a crowbar lying next to each other on the table. I love that our research involves heavy powerful machines, like an extremely powerful laser, and an overhead crane to lift the heavy lids of experimental vacuum chambers, but at the same time, the targets of the laser and the area in which we conduct our measurements are all smaller than a human hair. This quality, which could not be achieved in previous generation laboratories, is the basis for the novelty in each of our research projects.

What inspired you to pursue this area of research?  

For my Ph.D. research, I had to travel from Israel to the US around five times a year to use a football-stadium-size accelerator which accelerates electrons to an energy of 1 billion-electron-volt. When I heard about a new way for generating such high energy electrons using lasers, I decided to take a postdoc position at UT Austin to learn this method.  After four years in Texas, I was lucky to have Tel-Aviv University and the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program allow me to bring this technology to Israel and set up a laboratory for this type of research.

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What does it mean to you to be part of the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program?

Putting together a complicated experimental laboratory requires many skills which a new researcher needs to exercise for the first time. The Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program helped me in procuring experimental equipment which would otherwise take years to develop on our own and allowed me to focus on putting together specific research projects. The program also identified key skills and provided me with training, including the human resources aspects of forming a new research group, and in communicating our science to the community.

Where do you hope your research will have the greatest impact? 

It is the hope of every experimental physicist to show that the laws of nature, as they are currently formulated, are insufficient in explaining the phenomena he observes in his lab. In our lab, we look for cases when intense light reacting with matter cannot be described by the same laws that govern low intensity interactions. For example, we wish to be able to show one day that billions of light particles may produce matter out of nothing if we put enough of them in a very small volume.

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