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  • Isla Bailey

The Spark’s Day Out: Inside the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Updated: Feb 22

Traversing cathedral-esque rooms of one of the UK’s largest scientific facilities is the last thing you’d expect to find yourself doing of an afternoon. Dwarfed by gargantuan machinery and networks of piping, our tour guides whisked us through room after room, each the scene of remarkable discoveries made possible by the painstaking work of RAL-researchers.

The RAL sits at the heart of the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, sprawling across 700 acres of rolling countryside. The site is home to organisations at the cutting edge of technological and physical research, from the biotechnics giant Moderna to the Diamond Light Source (Britain’s main synchrotron facility). World-leading workforces tackle the disciplines of astronomy, computational science and particle physics, well en route to unveiling the secrets of the universe.

Our tour starts off in the ‘Horizon Room’ at the Visitors’ Centre, where we’re greeted by a giant model solar system and wall displays to boot, that feature the likes of legendary mathematicians Alan Turing, Margaret Hamilton and Joan Clarke. Emma, our guide for the day, runs us through the itinerary while we anxiously await our first look at the most mysterious facility of all – the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

Crossing a small bridge, we approach an otherwise unassuming building – a swathe of mechanisms whir away behind vast metal drums, portakabin-sized boxes and instruments taking up the square footage of an inner-city flat. We look on from a raised platform, while our guides describe what goes on inside these huge chambers and pipelines. ISIS consists of a powerful particle accelerator, which creates a high-energy beam of protons to be fired at a target object, knocking out slightly heavier particles called neutrons from its atoms. This process, known as spallation, can tell us a range of things about the object’s properties, like the distances between its atoms, or their motion in response to sudden impact.

The view from the gantry at the ISIS research facility. Image: Isla Bailey.

The facility has seen its fair share of users over the years, by businesses and researchers alike. Neutrons have been used to image archaeological finds from ancient Egyptian burial sites – a few years ago, our guides told us with thinly-veiled grandeur, they had been able to ‘virtually unwrap’ the 2000-year-old remains of lizards, thought to be placed in sarcophagi for ritualistic purposes.

On the ground floor we are introduced to the NILE experiment, where high-energy neutron sources are being used in irradiation studies, to examine the behaviour of the elusive ‘dark matter’ permeating our universe. Then, we are guided further into this labyrinth of metalwork and shown one of the newer projects the team have been working on, known simply as ‘ChipIr’. This high-speed neutron beam is an ingenious way of simulating how electronic components function when bombarded with cosmic rays, such as those regularly hitting Earth from the Sun. For instance, this is the kind of delicate circuitry you may find in motion sensors, circuit boards or even driverless cars!

Meet the IMAT - Imaging and Materials Science Engineering - instrument (far right). Observers can look inside objects that use neutrons to make highly detailed 3D scans. Image: Isla Bailey.

Now hauling ourselves across the expansive site, we’re rewarded with what can only be described as the highlight of the whole tour. With its characteristic doughnut shape and 500-metre circumference, the Diamond Light Source is truly an eight wonder of the world, even for the resolute non-physicist. With more beamlines than you can shake a stick at, Diamond is essentially an enormous microscope known as a synchrotron. It is driven by three highly powerful, linear particle accelerators (or LINACs for short), which elevate the speed of the circulating electrons; so much so that they give off light with a brightness to rival the Sun’s. These are fired from an electron gun and guided through a booster ring by magnets. Perched on the periphery of the doughnut are thirty-three cabin-sized laboratories, into which the beamlines are siphoned off for various experiments.

We step down from our viewing platform onto vast slabs of concrete. Nonchalantly, our guide points out that there is only a few feet of lead and concrete separating us from the roaring flurry of high-speed particles beneath our feet. These electrons can be treated as a very bright X-ray, employed for the likes of diffraction studies (which, quite literally, shed light on atomic structures). In a medical setting, these structural studies can show us the intricate features of even the tiniest virus, which can drastically influence the way we design antiviral drugs. The scientists working here have the ability to elucidate the most minute structures - at their fingertips. The secret to this lies in the beamlines diverging from the main synchrotron – one of which we were introduced to.

Beamline ‘I22’ feeds into one of the cabin-sized monitoring labs on the ground floor of the structure. This particular stream of electrons allows the technicians to use it in the same way you might adjust a camera lens, by moving the detector to examine the sample at greater resolutions. This characteristic lets us visualise even finer structures, such as the delicate cornea lining the outside of our eyes or the structure of a collagen molecule making up the body’s connective tissues.

With no limit to these possibilities in sight, we were hard pushed to think of an area where such technologies wouldn’t be useful. There is no doubt that the Laboratory’s namesakes, physicists Ernest Rutherford and Edward Appleton, would be thrilled to represent the modern, pioneering efforts of the 1,200-strong scientific community occupying the site today.

The Clean Room in the Particle Physics Department. Image: Isla Bailey


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