Bell Labs, the research arm of the telecommunications giant Alcatel-Lucent, has today announced that it will double the number of researchers at its Irish research centre in Dublin. The lab, once a powerhouse of basic physics research with seven Nobel prizes to its name, announced that it will create 70 new jobs over the next five years to carry out research into novel telecommunications devices. Alcatel-Lucent also has research centres in the US, China, India, Germany, France and Belgium.

Speaking at the launch of the expansion, Mary Coughlan, Ireland's deputy prime minister, said that it was "a significant investment in high-calibre jobs" that would cause "Ireland's reputation [to] grow". She was joined by Bell Labs president Jeong Kim, who dubbed Bell Labs Ireland, which was founded in 2005, "a success story" that would benefit the local knowledge economy. The expansion of Bell Labs Ireland has been supported by the Irish government through its Industrial Development Agency.

Past glory

Founded in 1925, Bell Labs was once considered to be one of the world's leading industrial laboratories for fundamental physics research. Bell researchers were responsible for inventing the transistor, the laser, as well as the UNIX and C computer-programming languages. Indeed, only last year former Bell Labs researchers Willard Boyle and George Smith shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing the charge-coupled device – a key component for most digital cameras – in 1969. They shared the prize with Charles Kao for his work on optical-fibre technology.

However, when Bell Labs' parent company AT&T was forced to split up in 1996, the once-famous lab ended up inside the newly-formed equipment division – Lucent Technology. Lucent struggled to fund Bell labs and the number of Lucent employees fell from a peak of 160,000 to just 30,000 in 2006 before it merged with French telecoms company Alcatel in December of that year. The new firm, Alcatel-Lucent, announced in August 2008 that Bell Labs would not carry out any further basic physics research but focus entirely on research that is directly relevant to its telecoms business.

Irish home

Founded by Lucent in 2005, Bell Labs Ireland is involved in designing low-cost, high-power antennas, studying network optimization, as well as investigating novel methods to cool communications equipment. Staff at the centre have also been building devices to boost 3G mobile-phone signals in the home or in areas with low coverage. They have, for example, designed algorithms that allow a device to send a signal only to the inside of a home and not outside, preventing neighbours from hitching a ride on your signal booster.

Researchers are also investigating how they can program a network of devices to communicate with each other to manage power more efficiently, dubbed "genetic programming" by Lester Ho, a computer scientist at Bell Labs. The expansion of Bell Labs Ireland will lead to new work in areas such as allowing networks to self configure and optimize themselves as well as testing new systems that can recover dissipated heat in telecommunications devices.

"What I like is that there is still an academic feel here," says Peter Cogan, one of a handful of physicists at the Dublin centre. "There are around 11 nationalities with 50% being international and 50% Irish." Cogan, who did a PhD and a post-doc in gamma-ray astronomy before joining the lab last March, also points out that he is doing similar day-to-day tasks as to what he did as a researcher. "Then I was writing programmes and doing data analysis. That was to understand basic physics but now I am doing similar things to understand network optimization."