Step into science

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory opens its doors

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) is on what is now the Harwell campus. There has been a laboratory on this site since 1957, when the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, an establishment of the National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science, was set up. RAL was formed when the original laboratory merged with the Atlas laboratory (in 1975) and the Appleton laboratory (in 1979).

RAL is just one of several STFC sites across the country, and is home to some of the UK’s major scientific facilities – available to both academic and industry researchers. The experiments that take place here are looking for solutions to some of the world’s pressing problems (including sustainable energy, security, environmental issues, health and disease), as well as furthering our understanding of the universe we live in.

The RAL site is a warren of different buildings, built at different times, according to need. We’re refurbishing and upgrading, and adding new buildings – it can be hard to find your way around without a map! But don’t worry, the staff are friendly and always willing to lend a hand if you need pointing in the right direction.

So… what could you see, if you paid us a visit?

The Central Laser Facility is home to a wide range of laser facilities, where researchers can come to explore different materials, or to investigate the potential of laser science itself.

The Artemis system produces pulses of extreme ultraviolet light (between UV and X-ray) so short that they are able to probe and take snapshots of the way electrons move within matter. Experiments on Artemis are revealing, for example, how novel materials such as graphene could be used in lasers, solar cells and electronics and exactly how molecules move as they make and break bonds in chemical reactions.

The ULTRA system has multiple laser beams of different colours and a suite of specialist cameras that take super high speed “movies” of molecules during chemical and biological reactions. Researchers might use ULTRA, for example, to study how well DNA is able to repair itself after damage and how problems with this process can lead to cancer.

The Octopus system is a laser-based microscopy facility that offers a set of advanced imaging stations, used to investigate biological systems from single molecules to whole cells and tissues.

Recent work on Octopus aims to discover why certain anti-cancer drugs lose their efficiency over time, and to help in the development of personalised drugs and treatments.

The Gemini laser system was the first facility in the world to provide two beams of high-power, super-intense laser light. Experiments on Gemini have shown that lasers can produce super-bright, high quality X-ray and gamma ray sources that are ideal for seeing through and probing very dense or concealed objects, and for medical applications.

The Vulcan laser system delivers pulses of light, containing up to one petawatt of power, that are so extreme in intensity that they are able to instantly rip apart and super heat matter to millions of degrees, forming a plasma. It supports a wide-ranging programme of research, encompassing both fundamental and applied aspects of plasma physics.

Find out more about the CLF’s lasers, and how researchers are using them to make exciting discoveries.

Diamond Light Source is the UK’s national synchrotron facility, housed in an iconic, ring-shaped building. Diamond is a third-generation synchrotron; it uses a series of particle accelerators to produce highly-focused X-ray, infrared and UV light. Scientists can then use this light to study all forms of matter at an atomic level. Diamond is used to make discoveries in medicine, physical science, technology, geological and environmental studies, structural genomics, archaeology, and more.

Essentially, Diamond works like a very high-powered microscope. It is helping researchers, for example, to develop a new vaccine against Polio, to create highly efficient solar cells, and to preserve the Mary Rose. From new drug treatments and climate change, to advanced engineering and nanotechnology, there’s very little that Diamond can’t shed light on!

Learn more by visiting the Diamond Light Source website.

ISIS is a pulsed neutron and muon source. It uses a particle accelerator to produce an energetic proton beam, which is fired into a target made from a heavy metal. This produces neutrons, in a process called spallation. ISIS has been operational for 30 years, and is continually upgraded to keep it a state-of-the-art facility.

Neutron scattering allows us to study materials at the atomic level – where atoms are, and how they’re moving. Muons can be used in a similar way, to provide complementary information.

An international community of more than 3000 scientists uses ISIS for experiments in areas such clean energy and the environment, pharmaceuticals and health care, nanotechnology and materials engineering, and the fundamental study of materials and their properties.

Download our neutron scattering brochure to read more about how neutron scattering is moving materials research forward.

The Particle Physics Department (PPD) at RAL participates in and supports the UK particle physics experimental programme. It provides capabilities that complement and go beyond what can be done in the universities, including construction of large particle detector systems, engineering, computing and data analysis, accelerator expertise and research and development.

PPD physicists and technical staff maintain and develop many world-leading experiments within the UK programme of particle physics research, participate in the experimental programme with university groups, contribute to training of research students, and provide support and general infrastructure for university groups.

PPD has been actively involved in the long shutdown of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, upgrading the detectors for the world’s largest experiment to work at higher energies. Now that it’s back online, find out what to expect from season two at the LHC.

RAL Space carries out an exciting range of world-class space research and technology development, at the forefront of UK Space Research.

RAL Space has had significant involvement in over 200 space missions, including space research and technology development, providing space test and ground-based facilities, instrument design and manufacture, data analysis and S- and X-band ground-station facilities.

RAL Space is looking forward to the opening of their new, state-of-the-art space development and test facility at RAL later this year. You can find out more about what they do in the RAL Space brochure.

The Research Complex at Harwell (RCaH) is a new multi-disciplinary laboratory for cutting-edge research in physical and life sciences. Many of the most important advances in science now take place at the boundaries between traditional disciplines, and the RCaH provides an environment where researchers can undertake research that crosses those boundaries. It’s also home to some of the CLF’s laser facilities.

Researchers at RCaH are looking into areas such as biological imaging, drug development and delivery, chemical processing and energy research.

You can find out more by visiting the RCaH website.

World-class science requires world-class computing. The Scientific Computing Department (SCD) provides this by designing and running large and complex computational and data systems that support the research lifecycle from background research, through simulation and experimental design, data collection and analysis to publication.

SCD has experts in many scientific fields who develop software to exploit new generations of computing infrastructures to extract insight and value from data. SCD’s areas of expertise include computational chemistry and biology, atomic and molecular physics, computational engineering, materials science and software engineering. SCD also provides cross-domain expertise to develop innovative software and resources for research.

Read our big data brochure to learn more about how scientific computing is helping to solve everyday problems.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000