Jens Osterhoff to receive the Bjørn H. Wiik Prize 2021

A look into the future: Bjørn H. Wiik prizewinner Jens Osterhoff with a plasma cell. Photo: DESY, Gesine Born

Thinking big to achieve small solutions. DESY physicist Jens Osterhoff is to receive this year’s Bjørn H. Wiik Prize in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field of plasma acceleration. Under his leadership, a strong team at DESY is carrying out research into a new generation of accelerators that are much more compact and inexpensive, yet nevertheless extremely powerful.

“Two things are necessary in order to turn this idea, which has been examined everywhere in the world, into a reality: a large, powerful accelerator laboratory like DESY and brilliant minds with new ideas and stamina like Jens Osterhoff,” says the Chairman of the Bjørn H. Wiik Prize Committee, Professor Jörg Rossbach. “He is receiving this year’s research award for his outstanding work in developing this technology, which has attracted international attention. It opens up exciting possibilities for the future of DESY in terms of using new accelerators in science and society.”

Jens Osterhoff has been conducting research at DESY since 2010: first in particle physics, and since 2019 in accelerator physics. Before joining DESY, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley Lab in California, among other things. Even back then, his boss and mentor was Wim Leemans, the director of DESY’s accelerator division: “I met Jens for the first time in 2008 and knew immediately that one day he would be very successful.” According to Osterhoff, however, his talent was already nurtured in his childhood: “I was always curious and enthusiastic about technology, and at the age of five I was already taking apart my parents’ electrical devices.”

Thirty-seven years later, Jens Osterhoff is at DESY. “I don't think there is anywhere else in the world that you get such high-quality technical support from experts as you do at DESY. Add to that the Helmholtz setting, with the stable funding it provides, and the freedom to pursue and implement visions.” The vision has long since become a concrete goal: “We seek to build high-performance, reliable plasma accelerators at DESY that are also suitable for practical applications.”

Osterhoff explains the underlying idea: “In plasma accelerators, short, powerful pulses of laser light or electrons are fired into an electrically charged gas. In this plasma, they produce a kind of wake, and the electron bunches ride along on these like surfers. In the process, they are accelerated to high energies over very short distances; to achieve this with an ordinary accelerator – like our FLASH accelerator, for example – it would have to be 100 metres long. The miniature accelerators of the future might be just a few centimetres across.”

Jens Osterhoff is now to receive the Bjørn H. Wiik Prize 2021 for his research: “Prizes are important because they show that the work is also recognised by an independent committee,” he says, adding in the same breath, “I consider it to be a team prize: after all, we have to build machines, understand large assemblies, carry out extremely complex simulations and, finally, put everything together properly.” In other words, “I didn’t sit in a quiet room on my own playing around with equations.”

The Bjørn H. Wiik Prize is DESY’s most important science award. It is endowed with 3000 euros and is awarded on DESY’s Science Day in memory of the Chairman of the DESY Directorate, Bjørn H. Wiik, who died in 1999. This year’s Science Day, at which DESY’s scientific highlights of 2021 will also be presented, is being held on 10 November.