Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Established: 1957
City/Location: Chilton, Oxfordshire,
United Kingdom
Type: applied science and
fundamental science
Staff/Employees: 1200
Operated by: Science and Technology
Facilities Council
Website: STFC RAL Website

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) is one of the national scientific research laboratories in the UK operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).[1] It is located on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus at Chilton near Didcot in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. It has a staff of approximately 1,200 people who support the work of over 10,000 scientists and engineers, chiefly from the university research community. The laboratory's programme is designed to deliver trained manpower and economic growth for the UK as the result of achievements in science.



RAL is named after the physicists Ernest Rutherford and Edward Appleton.

The National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science (NIRNS) was formed in 1957 to operate the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory established next to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment on the former RAF Harwell airfield between Chilton and Harwell. The 600MeV proton linear accelerator[2] was transferred from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment to the new laboratory to become a national facility for particle physics as the Nimrod (synchrotron). Since then the laboratory has grown both with the expansion of its established facilities, and the incorporation of facilities from other institutions to provide the benefits from economies of scale. The major mergers were in 1975 with the adjacent Atlas Computer Laboratory creating the Rutherford Laboratory, and then in 1979 with the Appleton Laboratory to form the current Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. With the closure of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1998, some small offices also moved to RAL. Similarly, laser technology moved to RAL from Joint European Torus at Culham to become the foundation of the Central Laser Facility.

In order to be able to decide the priorities for government funding across all areas of scientific research, the Science & Technology Act of 1965[3] created the Science Research Council (SRC) which took over management of the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory from NIRNS along with many other previously disparate UK science bodies. In order to prioritise economic impact over blue skies research, the SRC became the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) in the early 1980s, and in 1994,[4] the SERC was eventually divided into three Research Councils (the EPSRC, PPARC and the CCLRC - which took responsibility for RAL from EPSRC in 1995[5]), so that each could then focus its development around one of three incompatible business models - administratively efficient short duration grant distribution, medium term commitments to international agreements, long term commitments to staff and facilities provision. In order to unify the planning of the provision for UK scientists to access large national and international facilities,[6] in 2007 the CCLRC merged with PPARC and incorporated the nuclear physics discipline from EPSRC to create the Science and Technology Facilities Council which then took responsibility for RAL.[7]


RAL hosts two of the UK's major scientific facilities:

ISIS is a spallation neutron source. The neutrons it produces are mainly used in neutron scattering experiments to study the atomic structure and dynamics of materials. ISIS provides research capabilities for around 1600 scientists from a range of disciplines, and has been operating since 1985. ISIS evolved from the original Nimrod proton synchrotron,[8] whose location is currently used for the synchrotron which generates the neutrons and muons used to study materials in ISIS.

The Central Laser Facility provides access to large scale laser systems for researchers from the United Kingdom and other EU countries.[9] The facility operates high power glass and Ti:Sapphire laser installations(including the Vulcan and Astra lasers) and a number of smaller scale, tuneable lasers. A vigorous development programme ensures that facilities maintain their international competitiveness.

A third major facility is sited next to RAL and mostly owned by the STFC, sharing campus infrastructure:

The Harwell Science and Innovation Campus was controversially[10][11][12] chosen over the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus as the site for the synchrotron light source Diamond,[13] which officially opened in January 2007.

RAL also hosts several minor facilities, including:

  • Microelectronics Support Centre (MSC)
  • NGS UK national academic computing grid
  • EGEE international computing grid
  • Energy Research Unit[14]

RAL hosts a number of other resources and services in microelectronics, atmospheric sciences, spectroscopy and renewable energy research.


In addition to hosting facilities for the UK, RAL also operates departments to co-ordinate the UK programme of participation in major international facilities. The largest of these are the areas of particle physics, and space science.

In particle physics the largest international project is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but RAL has a major role in the UK participation in several other projects such as[15]:

In space science, RAL builds components for, and tests satellites, as well as receiving, analysing and curating the data collected by those spacecraft.[16] Satellite missions in which RAL has a significant role include:

Economic impact

In recent years, there has been an increasing political drive towards requiring that the science undertaken at RAL and the technology created there result in a proportional economic benefit to the UK in order to justify the investment of public funds in the laboratory. RAL management have argued that this is achieved in various ways, including

  • From the commercial products and services resulting from the scientific results which are achieved on the facilities at RAL (e.g. through new materials, new drugs etc..).
  • Through the early warning of disasters predicted from terrestrial and space data acquired and analysed at RAL (e.g. radio/mobile phone interference predictions, severe weather predictions etc..).
  • Through the training of specialist scientists and engineers at RAL, who then move into commercial companies.
  • Through the standardisation of technologies which has resulted in the acceleration of economic growth through interoperability and interchangeability of products - especially in computing.
  • By the enthusiasm generated in science by the results of large facilities (e.g. from astronomical images or from particle physics experiments), which leads to schoolchildren choosing scientific training and scientific careers in many fields.
  • By technologies developed at RAL during the development of facilities themselves, which are then licensed to UK companies, or spin-out companies.


  • Dr Gerry Pickavance (1957–1969)
  • Dr Godfrey Stafford (1969–1981)
  • Dr Geoff Manning (1981–1986)
  • Dr Paul Williams (1986–1998)
  • Dr Bert Westwood (1998–2000)
  • Dr Gordon Walker (2000–2001)
  • Professor John Wood (2001–2007)

In popular culture

RAL was used as a set for the filming of an episode of Terry Nation's BBC TV series Blake's 7.

The computer-generated imagery (CGI) for Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien were created at the Atlas Computer Laboratory which is now part of RAL.

See also


  1. ^ "Science and Technology Facilities Council". Science and Technology Facilities Council. 23 June 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-02. 
  2. ^ "Proton linear accelerators for nuclear research, and the A.E.R.E. 600 MeV project". Springer. Jan 1955. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  3. ^ "Science & Technology Act, 1965". Office of Public Sector Information. 23 Mar 1965. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  4. ^ "The Research Councils, (Transfer of Property etc) Order 1994". Office of Public Sector Information. 5 Mar 1994. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  5. ^ "The Research Councils, (Transfer of Property etc) Order 1995". Office of Public Sector Information. 3 Mar 1995. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  6. ^ "The Science and Technology Facilities Council Order 2007". Office of Public Sector Information. 7 Feb 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  7. ^ "The Research Councils, (Transfer of Property etc) Order 2007". Office of Public Sector Information. 8 Mar 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  8. ^ "Commons Hansard". House of Commons. 14 March 1961. Retrieved 2009-06-06. 
  9. ^ "Central Laser Facility". Science and Technology Facilities Council. April 2007. Retrieved 2008-11-02. 
  10. ^ "Hansard vol 339 c164W". Hansard. 25 Nov 1999. Retrieved 2009-06-006. 
  11. ^ "Hansard vol 348 c424W". Hansard. 18 Apr 2000. Retrieved 2009-06-006. 
  12. ^ "Hansard". Hansard. 23 May 2000. Retrieved 2009-06-006. 
  13. ^ "Dimond Light Source". DLS. 23 June 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-02. 
  14. ^ "Energy Research Unit". Science and Technology Facilities Council. 23 June 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-02. 
  15. ^ "Particle Physics Department". Science and Technology Facilities Council. 23 June 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-02. 
  16. ^ "Space Science and Technology Department". Science and Technology Facilities Council. 23 June 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-02. 

External links

Coordinates: 51°34′24″N 1°18′53″W / 51.57333°N 1.31472°W / 51.57333; -1.31472

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