Tayyab Suratwala

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) is the world’s largest and most energetic laser—and the biggest optical instrument. The stadium-sized facility contains 7,500 meter-sized optics and more than 26,000 smaller optics, together comprising an optical surface area of three-quarters of an acre.

Materials scientist Tayyab Suratwala was in his last year of a Ph.D. program from the University of Arizona when a Lawrence Livermore scientist heard him present a conference paper and invited him out to LLNL. Excited at the prospect of designing entirely new components for revolutionary lasers, Tayyab turned down job offers from industry to join LLNL’s laser optics group.

Today Tayyab is director of that same group, currently numbering 120 scientists and support personnel who underpin the ability of researchers to operate the 192-beam NIF and other Livermore laser systems. The group’s breakthroughs in glass and fused silica formulations and coatings produce journal papers, international patents, and technology transfer to American companies. Tayyab points out that NIF has spawned an entirely new industrial capability to build large optics that did not exist before. About one-third of the group develops new materials while another third recycles on-site optics inevitably damaged by intense laser light. The final group works with companies worldwide who manufacture optics to Livermore specifications.

Tayyab likens the work environment at Livermore to an ideal balance between industry and academia. He says it’s rare for a researcher in industry, for example, to receive a large R&D investment to perform fundamental scientific research. Likewise, it is rare in academia to obtain funding to scale up a new discovery into a production process. Both take place in Tayyab’s group. “This is an exciting place to work,” he says.