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Freelances go nuclear

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At near-end 2016, newly appointed Freelance Division visits organiser Ken Skehan launched the new programme with a proverbial bang. The visit was to Harwell Campus, for many years headquarters of the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment and currently a science park devoted to cutting-edge research, from super-energy laser radiation to advanced techniques for additive manufacturing.

Guided by some of the world’s outstanding physicists, our group studied some mind-boggling apparatus and developments. Code-named DIAMOND and located in a vast circular building opened by the Queen in 2007, the most imposing is Britain’s national synchrotron science facility. Producing intense beams of light like a conventional laser but incredibly more powerful, it can be used to investigate the structure and properties of an incredibly varied range of materials. The facility cost £260 million in a building 738m in circumference.

Speed of light

The particles used by Diamond are electrons travelling near to the speed of light. They travel not in a circle but in a 48-sided polygon equipped with magnetic accelerators or diverters at every corner. Each diversion facilitates the release of high-energy x-rays into beamlines, the experimental locations where the synchrotron radiation is employed for experimental purposes. We were able to see the internal structure of the accelerator ring as well as some of the beamlines. There are expected to be 32 of these by end 2017, and there are also an impressive collection of other laser apparatus, each with a catchy codename.

I’ll just pick one more important area, called RAL Space (Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory Space) and opened in 2015. It’s a Space Integration Facility based in a modern multistorey building, with lots of vacuum and environmental test chambers to support the national space programme.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand much of this. That applied to all of us before the visit, but I’d guess we could all pretend we understood at least part of it by the time we left. All due to the brilliance – and patience – of those who showed us around.

Finally, I know the famous RAL (see above), which owns or runs many of these facilities, is based in Cambridge, where the Isis river runs, and I appreciate its part-ownership of the river name (applied to projects, buildings and locations), but I still find the sign illustrated in just a tiny amount disconcerting.

Look out for more and widely differing Freelance Division facility visits in the coming months.

Ken Brookes

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