What does it take to be a world-leading facility?

Insights from the UK’s Central Laser Facility


The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Central Laser Facility (CLF) has been lighting the way for laser research, development, exploitation and training for the past 40 years.

Now, its lasers are in use at facilities around the world and its expertise is recognised around the globe. Below, we take a closer look at the CLF and find out what it takes to stay on top.

First though, how do lasers work? What do they do and how have they changed since their invention? Find out by watching these short videos:

How Do Lasers Work?
What Are Lasers Used For?
A Brief History Of Lasers

Find out more about the CLF’s incredible journey to become one of the world’s leading laser science facilities.


Where it all began

One place to begin is with record-breaking technology. At the start of 2017 came the news that the CLF’s DiPOLE 100 laser, delivered under contract to the Czech Republic’s HiLASE centre, officially became the most powerful laser of its kind in the world. The laser delivers up to ten pulses per second (with 100 joules per pulse at 1kw), and is the first to combine both high energy levels and a significant number of pulses per second.

There are a range of potential uses for this technology, including new medical applications, imaging capabilities and processing novel materials. The CLF is even building a DiPOLE100 laser for the European XFEL, where it will be used to recreate the conditions found within stars.

“Throughout the life and history of the CLF, we have aimed to not just be world-class but world-leading,” says Dave Pepler, who first joined the CLF in 1978. “We’ve always been pushed by the requirements of the users who are proposing experiments to have more energy, shorter pulses, bigger beams and higher focal spots."

The CLF has no plans to rest on its laurels just yet. The team, led by Director John Collier, has an ambitious science programme planned for the upcoming years that will to continue to push the boundaries of laser science into new territory.

Some of the projects being explored involve using lasers to create mass from light and developing uses for laser-based accelerators in sectors such as medicine, aerospace, nuclear, security and defence.

Find out more about the different potential uses for lasers here:

Lasers - A Game Changer

Further collaboration, this time with other facilities on the Harwell Campus, may also see the CLF providing deeper insights into biological, medical and materials science. By working with the Research Complex at Harwell, Diamond Light Source, and The Rosalind Franklin Institute, the CLF can contribute to the establishment of a world-leading centre for multimodal imaging.

At the heart of the CLF’s success is its expert staff. The organisation has grown from a handful of people working on a single laser to a facility with more than 100 full-time staff, involved in hundreds of international collaborations.

This makes the CLF a hub for skills and excellence within its scientific arena, exemplified by its skills training programme.

PhD students from ELI-NP

A group of PhD students from ELI-NP taking part in the CLF training programme.
(Credit: STFC)

The skills training programme provides a much-needed opportunity for new PhD students (and established scientists new to the field) to learn the key skills they will need to run high-power laser experiments and meet other members of the community. Typically, training weeks have been funded by the CLF for students at UK universities, but have more recently been run at the request of other international facilities, such as the Extreme Light Infrastructure - Nuclear Physics facility (ELI-NP) in Romania and Laserlab Europe.

By attending training weeks, students are able to pick up a huge range of skills (including laser and plasma diagnostics, optics characterisation, laser safety, vacuum and cryogenic systems, targetry and overall project management) and explore the fundamentals of setting up and running an experiment in a relaxed environment.

Since 2000, 166 people have completed the CLF’s skills training programme. These include a number of people who have gone onto the leadership positions at national laboratories around the world, such as Dr Paul McKenna , Professor at University of Strathclyde, Dr Mingsheng Wei, Senior Scientist at General Atomics in San Diego and Dr Stuart Mangles, Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London.

As Stuart explains: “The CLF is a major part of my research. One nice thing I have seen over the last few years is that people now want to use the electron beams and X-rays we’ve been developing – and that has led us to really appreciate the demands of supplying a beam to a group of users!”

Dr Emma Springate first worked with the CLF as a user during her PhD and has gone onto become group leader of the CLF’s Artemis facility. She puts the CLF’s success down to the way it has evolved to reflect science's growing and changing demands. “If you’re working in a facility, that’s the way you have got to think: make it as useful as possible for the largest number of people,” says Emma.

PhD and user training programmes are not the only skills development taking place at the CLF.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s apprenticeship programme has been in place at sites across the UK for a number of years, and the CLF has played a major role in the programme’s success.

Pete Brummitt started his career as an apprentice 27 years ago, and worked his way up to a leadership position as a mechanical designer.

He’s been able to progress through his career in part because of the support offered by the facility as he continued to train.

Pete says: “The department has been very supportive of further education. I’ve completed qualifications in mechanical engineering and also a degree while at the CLF. I have also been able to progress my career within the department, holding a number of different positions (craftsperson, target area technician and subsequently working as a mechanical design engineer). To become a design engineer, I had to learn a partially new skill set, which was fully encouraged.”

“I have really enjoyed working at the CLF. Due to the nature of the work carried out at the CLF, it is often a fast paced, dynamic environment. I have generally found this a good thing as there are new challenges most days, which keeps things interesting!”

In 2016-17, 11 apprentices were training with the CLF, and with an exciting science programme on the horizon, the CLF will need a steady stream of trained experts and engineers to make it happen. Who knows what the CLF will achieve in the next 40 years?

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000