20 December 2017
‘The home of computer animation in Britain’ is just one of the many terms coined to describe the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) over its 60 year history.
Nestled in rural Oxfordshire, RAL is home to some of the UK’s most incredible science. For six decades the site, its world-leading facilities and several hundred researchers, technicians and support staff have been at the forefront of huge discoveries and cutting edge innovation.
Earlier this year, the first detection of gravitational waves was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for physics – and RAL technology and expertise played a major part in that international discovery through contributions to the US-based detectors that were able to record gravitational waves for the first time.
From pioneering techniques capable of studying antibiotics, cosmic rays and even medieval artefacts at the atomic scale, to revolutions in space technology and engineering that have helped unravel the mysteries of the universe, the Laboratory, and the Harwell campus it now sits within, has forged an international reputation.
RAL is funded and managed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and STFC Executive Director of National Laboratories, Andrew Taylor says: “The UK is at the forefront of scientific discovery and provides world-class facilities to scientists, engineers and researchers from the UK and beyond. Sitting on the international advisory committees for China, US, Europe and Japan, I am proud to be a part of such amazing science and look forward to where our new discoveries take us.”
RAL was founded at a time when Harwell – a former airbase – was rising in prominence as a centre for nuclear research. Before long, RAL was making a name for itself too. In 1957 it started off as The National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science to operate the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, and quickly began to flourish, turning many theories into reality.
Since its inception, the site has been at the core of particle research, driving a number of world-firsts. The Standard Model of particle physics has its origins in research at RAL, along with other national labs round the world. And the site has played host to a variety of ground-breaking particle accelerators, including NIMROD, an early proton synchrotron used to explore the structure of sub-nuclear matter.
That spirit of innovation remains strong, and RAL’s Particle Physics Department continues to challenge our understanding of the universe, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and probing deeper into the fundamental physics that underpins our world. The experimental focus of the department has now developed into higher energy centres overseas such as CERN and SLAC (California), which are utilising UK skills and expertise push our understanding even further.
But particle physics is by no means the only area in which RAL shines. Computing is also at the core of RAL’s history. In 1961, the Atlas Computer Laboratory was formed, and by 1962, the laboratory was home to the Atlas 1 computer, at that time the most powerful computer in the world.
Cutting-edge CGI and animation technologies developed at the site prompted the Financial Times to dub the laboratory ‘the home of computer animation in Britain’. And the Scientific Computing Department continues that legacy as a hub of state-of-the-art computer science providing data processing, data modelling and data analysis services as part of a global network for the Large Hadron Collider.
Work in the space sector is another stellar success story for RAL.
In 1962, researchers at RAL supported a major mission to launch Canada’s first satellite, Alouette 1 marking the first chapter in the site’s illustrious history of space science. Over the course of the next 55 years, RAL Space has supported over 210 more space missions, firmly positioning RAL as a centre for the UK space sector.
In 2020, the new National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF) will open its doors, providing world class services for the assembly, integration and testing of satellites, aiming to unlock industrial potential and further accelerate the growth of the UK space sector, an industry worth more than £250 billion to the UK economy.
Another historical first for RAL was the opening of the Central Laser Facility (CLF) in 1977 which celebrated 40 years of innovation this year. In 2005 The Guinness Book of World Records recognised its Vulcan laser as the world’s most intense laser. More recently, 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. There are a range of potential uses for this technology – including new medical applications, imaging capabilities and processing novel materials.
“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, higher focal spots."
The Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) technique developed in the CLF allows ‘seeing’ through barriers. Analysing the scatter of a laser beam shone on them allows identification of materials behind surfaces in a non-invasive manner. This revolutionary technique is now used for applications ranging from detecting original artwork beneath famous paintings to screening liquids passing through airport security and quality assurance in the pharmaceutical industry.
The 1970s also saw a series of mergers. The Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, Atlas Computer Laboratory and Appleton Laboratory were combined to create a truly multidisciplinary research organisation - the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory or RAL.
In 1984, the site began a new era of pioneering the applications of accelerator research with the launch of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. For over 30 years now, ISIS has led the world in pulsed neutron research, delivering advances in medicine, engineering, technology and fundamental research. Every year, hundreds of experiments are performed at ISIS, and the facility attracts researchers from all over the world.
RAL’s legacy of cutting-edge accelerator research was further cemented with Diamond Light Source opened in 2007. Diamond is the UK’s national synchrotron and one of the world’s most advanced research facilities. Diamond research is driving progress in diverse fields, from medicine to energy, and the synchrotron continues to be an icon of cutting-edge research.
Zoë Bowden is Head of ISIS Operations and ISIS Deputy Director: “Since my arrival in the autumn of 1979 RAL has been a great place to work. We are a laboratory of brilliant people delivering at the forefront of science and technology to an extremely broad and demanding scientific community.
“RAL has always provided me with an exciting and demanding career, enabling me to collaborate with the world’s leading scientists and technologists, based both here and across the world.”
2017 has also seen the completion of the Phase II project at STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, resulting in four new scientific instruments. The instruments will support UK research in a range of fields, including advanced healthcare, advanced manufacturing, quantum matter, autonomous vehicles, next-generation electronics, and more.
Announced this year, the Rosalind Franklin Institute (RFI), will be headquartered at RAL and build on UK strengths in the physical, engineering and life sciences to create a national centre of excellence to develop technologies and treatments for disease.
RAL also plays a positive role in inspiring the next generation of researcher, technicians and engineers. Public engagement has always been important to RAL but now more than ever as the UK faces a shortage of people that have the range of STEM skills and qualifications that the country needs in the future; many studies have warned about the future damage to our economy if we do not encourage more people to study and work in STEM areas. The public engagement teams at RAL work with national and local schools to inspire both girls and boys to be more likely to study, or work in STEM.
The site also runs a successful apprenticeship scheme. Katherine Mordecai, a mechanical engineering apprentice, began her apprenticeship straight after her GCSEs and is now in her third year of the four year programme. Katherine said: “I have always been interested in engineering and working out why something didn’t work. Having a hobby of motorcycles helped vastly in this and learning different ways of solving the problems was always very interesting. Seeking information about a career where I could use those skills and interests led me to STFC.”
Together, the facilities are ensuring that the UK is driving world-class science, industrial growth and providing solutions to grand challenges. As we look forward the laboratories offer a promising future, lightening up opportunities for the UK science industry and brightening the prospects for growth and jobs. The campuses are expanding, bringing researchers and academics together to create new scientific challenges.
Dr Taylor adds: “The past sixty years have seen fantastic changes at RAL, but surely the best is yet to come. A golden age beckons with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory as the linchpin of future developments on the Harwell campus.”
Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson, said:
“The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is a great success story for British science, acting as a platform for our world-leading researchers to work collaboratively with international counterparts.
The ability of our institutions to excel in these areas has been bolstered further by an increase in science and research funding by £2.3 billion to 2022, reflecting its importance as a key cornerstone of our Industrial Strategy.”