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The legacy and next steps of engineering – reviewing some of STFC's biggest achievements

Main Year of Engineering page

The legacy and next steps of engineering – reviewing some of STFC's biggest achievements

20 December 2018

As we draw to a close on the Year of Engineering, we take a look back at some of STFC’s biggest engineering highlights. Whether it’s with the help of software engineers, mechanical engineers or technical engineers, STFC has pushed the boundaries of science and technology for decades. From projects that have taken tens of years to come into fruition, to project upgrades that have created huge scientific breakthroughs, STFC’s engineers have been leading the way in science research across the UK.

Engineering neutrons and muons to scientific impact

In 1977, ISIS Neutron and Muon Source received approval to be built on the Harwell campus within STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The purpose of the facility was to provide a unique insight into the properties of materials on the atomic and molecular scale.

Just a few years later in 1984, the first beam was produced, with the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, formally opening the facility in 1985. The facility has grown immensely over the years and is an invaluable feat of engineering and technology, enabling big science for academic and industry researchers from around the world. Just recently the facility celebrated 10 years of its Target Station 2, and it now supports more than 2000 scientists in neutron and muon research in physics, chemistry, materials science, geology, engineering and biology.

Now the Endeavour project presents ambitious plans for a new suite of instruments that will take advantage of recent technological advances to solve 21st century challenges. Our engineers and scientists are also providing their expertise to the European Spallation Source, currently under construction in Sweden where the UK will deliver two neutron instruments. Finally, the ISIS-II project is gathering momentum, examining the options for a whole new facility to maintain our position at the forefront of neutron and muon science.

Engineering cutting edge laser science

Engineers play a vital role in enabling cutting edge laser science at STFC’s Central Laser Facility (CLF). From providing design and manufacturing support on experiments to facility users, to ensuring the safe operation required for all lasers, target areas, and research and development laboratories. The facility opened in 1977 with just a single laser, and has now grown to become an internationally recognised facility with a large suite of instruments, enabling big science breakthroughs such as using super-fast lasers to help develop new anti-cancer treatments, and mimicking the environment within a black hole. But the team at CLF hasn’t stopped yet. They have an ambitious science programme planned for upcoming years that will continue to push the boundaries of laser science into new territory. Some projects being explored involve using lasers to create mass from light and developing uses for laser-based accelerators in sectors such as medicine, aerospace, nuclear, and security.

Space engineering sets precedence for future exploration

Cast yourself back to 2004 when the European Space Agency’s comet chasing mission, Rosetta, successfully launched; an important moment for the hundreds of engineers from across Europe who had worked on the mission during its 20-30 years of development. Engineers made this ground breaking mission happen, ensuring it could fully function after 10 years in hibernation as it travelled across space to successfully orbit the comet and land the Philae probe. It became the first man-made device to land on a comet. The project spanned the careers of some of the engineers involved. STFC contributed to the mission by designing and building the mini research laboratory that landed on the comet. Engineers from STFC’s RAL Space also designed the thermal insulation for some of the instruments that helped detect the isotopic make-up of the comet and collected data on the relationship between water and ice on comets.


CLARA highlights STFC’s unique engineering skills on international scale

As Rosetta came to rest in 2016, engineers at Daresbury Laboratory were hard at work on another major milestone in UK science, CLARA (Compact Linear Accelerator for Research and Applications). CLARA is a unique particle accelerator designed specifically to develop, test and advance new technologies for the next generation of Free Electron Laser (FEL). Described as the fastest movie camera in the world that studies the dynamics of atomic nuclei, the project aimed to generate a deeper understanding of how medicines interact within the body and of catalytic processes in new materials for energy storage.

It wasn’t long until this new piece of engineering began to attract interest from international laboratories around the world, such as SwissFEL, CERN, SLAC in the USA, INFN and FERMI in Italy. The project received ~£1m of equipment from Switzerland in exchange for beam time access and support from STFC experts to help design various SwissFEL systems and FEL commissioning. After just two years of intense intricate engineering, CLARA’s beam turned on for its first experiments in November this year.

Next steps for STFC engineering

The 21st century has already been full of firsts and we are only less than one fifth of the way through! STFC has been making remarkable steps in scientific exploration for years and it doesn’t stop there. Sliding back into life today, engineers are involved in new challenging projects; some only just starting, some half way through, and some almost complete.

Joining the world of engineering at this time couldn’t be more exciting! Perhaps you will see the legacy of somebody’s engineering project come into fruition, or even be at the start of something new. Science has shown there is the possibility of life beyond Earth and we continue to push the boundaries of science, but could it be you that finds the next first?

Last updated: 20 December 2018


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