The Central Laser Facility at 40
15 Mar 2018
- Emily Cooke



Last year, the CLF celebrated its fortieth anniversary. Here we provide a brief history of the facility and relive four decades of incredible laser science.




At 12:06 on Monday 20th June 1977, the chairman of the Science Research Council, Sir Sam Edwards, pressed FIRE on the Neodymium Glass Laser. A number of loud bangs - accompanied by the sounds of popping champagne corks and cheers of celebration - heralded the beginning of what would become a new era of British laser science. The Central Laser Facility (CLF) was born.

Nearly half a century, 9 lasers, 6 directors and 6 spin-off companies later, the modern CLF as we know it, is bigger and stronger than ever. Situated a mile off the A34 at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the CLF is a facility for the future. We break boundaries; our research is published in high-quality journals and our technology touches people's lives. Our science is – and always has been – innovating. 


Our story doesn't begin with the inauguration day in 1977. In fact, you have to wind the clock back another three years, to July 17th 1974. On this day, committee members from the Science Research Council, gathered to discuss a rather interesting proposal from the Director of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at the time, Godfrey Stafford.  The plan was to build a unique facility – unlike anything seen in the UK before – that would allow scientists to produce and study high-density plasma.

Over the next year, Stafford and other scientists presented their case to the committee.  They had a strong argument behind them. The climate was right, laser technology was advancing in leaps and bounds and the UK had no intention of falling behind. If we wanted to become a world-leader in this field, we needed a base, and where better than the Harwell Campus, a site steeped in history - a hub of British science since the Second World War. Instead of fighting over access to lasers at private institutions, one central site would provide the facilities for scientists from all over the world to complete cutting-edge research in the UK. In October 1975, the team were given the green light from the Government.


Flash forward four decades and the CLF has changed almost beyond recognition. From humble beginnings with a single laser, we now employ more than 100 full-time staff who work day - and often night (!) to ensure that scientists from all over the world can complete ground-breaking research. Our extensive graduate, sandwich student and work experience schemes mean that the CLF has a continuous turnover of fresh, young talent. Together with our diverse public engagement programme, these schemes symbolise our ethos of striving to inspire the next generation of STEM students.

Education and employee enrichment is really valued here. For example - since 2000 - 166 people have completed the CLF's skills training programme, which provides PhD students and established scientists new to the field, the opportunity to develop the key skills required to run high-power laser experiments. 


The department provides a fast-paced, dynamic environment within a community that has always kept a deep passion for the wonderful world of laser physics at its heart.  We currently have five fully-operational laser facilities at RAL; Vulcan, Artemis, Astra-Gemini, Octopus and Ultra. Previous lasers included Sprite (1982), which was an e-beam-pumped krypton fluoride (KrF) laser and its successor Titania (1996). Our spin-off companies have been purchased for millions of dollars and technology developed on site has gone on to win national awards.

With the advancement of modern technology at an almost incomprehensible rate, it is easy to see the impact that lasers have had on this technological explosion. Lasers are all around us, from the blue-ray DVD players in our homes to the lasers in eye surgery. Looking back it is hard to think that so much has changed here in the space of 40 years, yet technology has expanded so quickly in such a short space of time that it is actually quite awe-inspiring to fathom what the CLF will look like after 50 or even 60 years. New lasers? Higher intensities? We'll have to wait and see​


Further information regarding the 40 year celebrations can be found here.

To learn more about the CLF and its world-class laser facilities, please follow this link.

Contact: Cooke, Emily (STFC,RAL,ISIS)