Our research

Student working with lasers
Quantum communications research laboratory

Physics research at Heriot-Watt University spans from understanding the fundamentals of nature at a quantum level through to the application of physics techniques in applications as diverse as astronomical instrumentation to cell manipulation.

At Heriot-Watt University our research is organised by Research Institute rather than Academic Discipline.  Our Physics Academic staff are members of our research institutes that best reflect their expertise, with the majority of our staff in the Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences (IPAQS)  and the Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bio-Engineering (IB3).

If your interest is in a particular research area, you should explore the Research Institute web pages, where you can find more details about their current research activities.

To give you a feel for the range of research currently underway at Heriot-Watt University we have selected a few highlights of our recent work below. 

Artificial Black Holes from Lasers

Researchers in the Extreme Light group are expanding our understanding of light at its extremes. This might be very intense light or light at its weakest, at the single photon level. By combining these two extremes it is possible to use intense light to warp the spacetime structure perceived by photons.

An exciting application is the ability to study black-hole physics and quantum electrodynamics in curved space-time geometries. Properly controlled and intense laser pulses create the analogue of a black hole event horizon that may thus be studied in the laboratory.  To find out more about this work please see our short video.

3D Imaging using Photon Counting

In recent years, application areas for three–dimensional (3D) imaging have emerged in several fields, including manufacturing, defence, and geosciences. The new generation of 3D imaging systems based on  laser radar (ladar) offers advantages in many applications.

Our approach using time–correlated single–photon counting (TCSPC) affords potential advantages over non–photon–counting approaches such as improved depth resolution in which it is possible to filter a scene by distance.  In this way it is possible to retrieve 3D shape information directly from the scene and separate an object of interest from background or foreground clutter by extracting a narrow depth range from the field of view.

The advantage of detection of single–photon events means that the system can be used even when there is an average of less than one photon return event per pulse, which is critical in applications involving long–distance ranging. At kilometre ranges, the low photon return rates permit the use of high repetition rate, compact, low-power laser diodes, since it is not necessary to record a return on every outgoing laser pulse.

There is growing interest in depth imaging, especially as photon–counting detector and acquisition technology continues to improve, permitting faster data acquisition at longer ranges. To find out more see our video below.

Seeing Around Corners using Lasers

High sensitivity photodetectors are able to measure light at the single photon level. Single photon measurements are usually performed using single pixel 'SPAD' detectors - our collaborators at Edinburgh University have developed state of the art detector arrays that are capable of delivering images of single photons. We are using these cameras to push the limits of imaging technology.

For example, we are using such quantum imaging to detecting objects that are hidden from view, e.g. by a wall or a dense, scattering medium. Learn more from our video.