Tsunami On Demand: The Power To Harness Catastrophic Events

Photonic chip by Professor Andrea Fratalocchi.
Photo Fratalocchi

Can you imagine how much energy is in a tsunami wave, or in a tornado? Energy is all around us, but mainly contained in a quiet state. But there are moments in time when large amounts of energy build up spontaneously and create rare phenomena on a potentially disastrous scale. How these events occur, in many cases, is still a mystery.

To reveal the natural mechanisms behind such high energy phenomena, Andrea Fratalocchi, assistant professor in the Computer, Electrical and Mathematical Science and Engineering Division of KAUST, led a team of researchers from Saudi Arabia and three European universities and research centers to understand the dynamics of such destructive events and controlling their formation in new optical chips, which can open various technological applications. The results and implications of this study will be published today in the prestigious journal Nature Physics.

Andrea Fratalocchi
Professor Andrea Fratalocchi, Director of the Primalight Research Lab.
Photo Tunde Gaspar.

"I have always been fascinated by the unpredictability of nature, ”Fratalocchi said. “And I believe that understanding this complexity is the next frontier that will open cutting-edge pathways in science and offer novel applications in a variety of areas." Fratalocchi’s team began their research by developing new theoretical ideas to explain the formation of rare energetic natural events such as rogue waves — large surface waves that develop spontaneously in deep water and represent a potential risk for vessels and open-ocean oil platforms.”

“Our idea was something never tested before,” Fratalocchi continued. “We wanted to demonstrate that small perturbations of a chaotic sea of interacting waves could, contrary to intuition, control the formation of rare events of exceptional amplitude.”

A planar photonic crystal chip, fabricated at the University of St. Andrews and tested at the FOM Institute AMOLF in the Amsterdam Science Park, was used to generate ultrafast (163 fs long) and subwavelength (203 mn wide) nanoscale rogue waves, proving that Fratalocchi’s theory was correct. The newly developed photonic chip offered an exceptional level of controllability over these rare events.

The outcomes of this project offer leading-edge technological applications in energy research, high-speed communication and in disaster preparedness. Fratalocchi and the team believe their research represents a major milestone for KAUST and for the field. “This discovery can change once and for all the way we look at catastrophic events,” concludes Fratalocchi, ”opening new perspectives in preventing their destructive appearance on large scales, or using their unique power for ideating new applications at the nanoscale.” The title of the Nature Physics paper is “Triggering extreme events at the nanoscale in photonic seas.” 

By Francesca Serra