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Lasers for life

In science fiction, lasers  are nearly always used as a weapon of destruction.  In the real world, lasers correct people’s eyesight, remove tattoos and operate CD players.  In the movies, lasers are more likely to destroy a space ship than be shown as a force for good.  But at the STFC Central Laser Facility, these concentrated beams of electromagnetic radiation can help us understand more about our environment, diagnose and treat diseases, produce potential new energy sources and even prevent terrorism.  

Lasers (Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation) are made up of light waves that are in phase with each other - all travelling in the same direction and usually all one wavelength.  First proposed by Einstein in 1917, laser technology has evolved into a huge variety of fields, with applications reaching almost every aspect of society.  Lasers are not only part of our everyday life - they are helping to improve our lives as well.


Lasers for health

Aligning a microscope prior to experiments.

In Goldfinger James Bond famously avoided death by a strategically placed laser. In the Bond movie, Octopussy, members of the octopus cult sported tattoos with blue edged tentacles. In the Central Laser Facility, you will also find an Octopus or two, and plenty of lasers. But there the Bond comparisons end - as an Octopus is also a type of microscope with a central core of around 20 lasers.  Any tentacles here are made up of fibre optics.

Image of human epithelial cells

Scientists at the Octopus facility are at the forefront of research into using lasers for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, such as lung and breast cancer.  

By tagging ‘misbehaving’ proteins in a patient’s cells and using lasers to illuminate the molecules, scientists can build up a complex picture of the exact molecular interactions that lead to disease. This picture, unique to every patient, will enable doctors to tailor medication to a patients DNA fingerprint to target the exact disease pattern with minimal side effects.

Laser science is also involved in a new generation of therapeutic radiation sources that could be small enough to be placed in hospitals and used for cancer detection and therapy. These compact sources use high power laser pulses to accelerate charged particles, producing beams of high-energy particles as well as very short bursts of X-rays that could be used in imaging and radiation therapy.  Q would be proud.


Lasers for security

Explosives emit a cocktail of volatile chemicals and the combination of these chemicals creates a unique fingerprint.  If you can ‘read’ this fingerprint, it is possible to detect a number of dangerous substances - just one of the ways that laser research is being applied to the field of security.

STFC spin-out Cobalt Light Systems has exploited a laser spectroscopy technique to create a detection system that could identify liquid explosives, even when concealed in an opaque bottle. This laser-based technology is also under investigation for the detection of counterfeit and illicit drugs, and biological and chemical warfare agents.

When a high power laser is driven into a foil target it produces an intense burst of Gamma rays.  The Central Laser Facility Centre for Advanced Laser Technology and Applications, or CALTA, is hoping to use this technology for advanced imaging to screen, for instance, large mobile container crates at ports.


Lasers for energy

Nuclear fusion has long been considered the Holy Grail of energy.  Hydrogen is abundant on Earth and, if the nuclei of hydrogen isotopes could be fused together, enormous amounts of energy will be released.  Our reliance on fossil fuels would be over.  Fusion therefore has the potential to address future problems in electricity generation by providing an effectively inexhaustible supply of clean energy.

Extremely high temperatures are required for fusion and high power lasers can be used to ignite fusion reactions.  With no greenhouse gas emissions, this type of energy can be released in an environmentally sustainable manner. In fact, just one cubic kilometre of seawater contains enough deuterium fuel - deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen - to provide energy that would exceed the world’s oil reserves.


Lasers for environment

Laser beam “tweezers” are helping scientists gain an insight into climate change - one of the most important environmental issues on our planet.

The tweezers are made from two beams of laser light and can be used to hold the individual micro-droplets that make up clouds.  Clouds absorb and reflect heat and are thought to have a substantial impact on climate change.  But pollutants, produced by burning fossil fuels, can affect the formation and growth of water droplets in the clouds.  By studying the droplets, and mimicking their behaviour in controlled laboratory conditions, scientists can then reveal some of the complex chemistry behind climate change.

Observing and capturing microscopic objects using specialist laser techniques at the Central Laser Facility is allowing us to understand more about our environment.  But laser tweezers are also being used to identify and study individual microbes that are good at eating certain types of pollution, as well as manipulating structures inside plant cells to watch and understand how plants transport nutrients during growth.


The Future

It’s been just over fifty years since the invention of the first laser but it has already revolutionised both science and the way we live.  The next fifty years could be equally impressive.

STFC’s Central Laser Facility (CLF) is at the forefront of innovative laser research and its facilities and researchers are among the best in the world. CLF is host to a variety of high and medium power laser systems enabling a wide range of applications and experiments in physics, chemistry and biology.

The high-power Vulcan and Gemini lasers support experiments into fusion, lab-based astrophysics and plasma physics research.

The Artemis laser produces pulses of light that are so short that they are able to probe and take snapshots of the way electrons move within atoms.

The Ultra time-resolved spectroscopy facility is used to study ultra-fast chemistry.

The Octopus imaging cluster, which has a central core of lasers coupled to high-powered microscopes, has biological applications such as devising new cancer treatments.

The facilities maintain their international competiveness through a vigorous development programme and deliver world-class laser systems to its users.  CLF also has programmes for advancing state-of-the-art pulsed laser technology.

Projects such as DiPOLE is focussed on delivering a high average power laser system capable of firing pulses ten times a second and, once up and running, the CLF’s new upgraded Vulcan 10 PW will be the most powerful laser in the world.

The CLF’s Centre for Advanced Laser Technology and Applications, or CALTA, has also been established to deliver an impact to the UK economy and society through its programme of innovative laser technology and application development.  

Laser technology is innovative, diverse and life changing.  The future looks better already.

Last updated: 04 March 2016


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