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Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL)

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), Harwell Campus, Didcot, Oxfordshire
Harwell Campus

OX11 0QX

About Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL)

The STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), at the Harwell Campus near Didcot in Oxfordshire, is home to many of the UK’s most advanced research facilities and supports work in a range of areas, including space science and astronomy, particle physics, nanotechnology and developing new materials.

Scientists at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) come to work every day because they want answers to some of science’s biggest questions. How big a computer system do you need to analyse the weather? How do we solve the world’s antibiotics crisis, or how do we keep our future energy supplies going?

RAL’s pioneering work in areas such as particle physics, scientific computing, laser development, space research, and technology addresses some of the important challenges facing society.

RAL – Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – is named after the physicists Ernest Rutherford and Edward Appleton. It was founded when Harwell – a former airbase – was rising in prominence as a centre for nuclear research. Before long, RAL was making a name for itself too.

But a laboratory has existed on the Chilton site since 1957. It started as The National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science to operate the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory and quickly began to flourish, turning many theories into reality.

Today, approximately 1200 staff work on site. It is funded and managed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). RAL is one of six sites in the UK operated by STFC that is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

UKRI brings together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England. It aims to maximise the contribution of each component part, working individually and collectively and works with many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.

RAL offers a range of diverse training schemes, including engineering apprenticeships and summer student placements. These schemes help attract young people into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which is vital for the future of the UK economy.

Scientific facilities at RAL

Some of the major scientific facilities at RAL, and on the wider Harwell Campus, include:

Scientific Computing Department (SCD) manages high performance computing facilities, services and infrastructure, supporting some of the UK’s most advanced scientific facilities. The SCD continues that legacy as a hub of state-of-the-art computer science providing data processing, data modelling and data analysis services as part of a global network for the Large Hadron Collider. Whether it’s creating new computational science software, helping to visualise complex scientific results, or developing the infrastructure that allows us to process huge amounts of data, R&D from SCD drives improvements across the scientific research landscape.

In 1962, researchers at RAL supported a major mission to launch Canada’s first satellite, Alouette 1, marking the first chapter in the site’s illustrious history of space science. Since then, RAL Space has supported over 210 more space missions, firmly positioning RAL as a centre for the UK space sector. ​The facilities at RAL Space have been created to meet the comprehensive and exacting needs of customers and collaborators. It provides the capability for the needs of the next generation of spacecraft and instruments, and it contributes to the growing community of space-focused businesses and capabilities located at the Harwell Campus.​​

Another historical first for RAL was the opening of the Central Laser Facility (CLF) in 1977. ​​​The CLS provides a broad spectrum of laser facilities, from high-intensity laser systems to ultra-fast sources and laser microscopy techniques. ​​​​The CLF lasers are used to investigate a broad range of science areas, spanning physics, chemistry and biology. Research topics range from investigating complex biological reactions within cells to examining new ideas for future energy production.

In 1984, the site began a new era of pioneering the applications of accelerator research with the launch of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. ISIS Neutron and Muon Source produces beams of neutrons and muons that allow scientists to study materials at the atomic level using a suite of instruments, often described as ‘super-microscopes’. It supports a national and international community of more than 2​000 scientists who use neutrons and muons for research in physics, chemistry, materials science, geology, engineering, and biology.

RAL’s legacy of cutting-edge accelerator research was further cemented with the Diamond Light Source that opened in 2007. Diamond is the UK’s national synchrotron and one of the world’s most advanced research facilities. Diamond research is driving progress in diverse fields, from medicine to energy, and the synchrotron continues to be an icon of cutting-edge research.

In 2020, the new National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF) opened its doors. It provides world-class services for the assembly, integration and testing of satellites, aiming to unlock industrial potential and further accelerate the growth of the UK space sector, an industry worth more than £250 billion to the UK economy.

The Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell is one of ten UK network technology and innovation centres that help organisations make use of, and benefit from, satellite technologies. It brings together multi-disciplinary teams to generate ideas and solutions in an open innovation environment. This Catapult has incorporated the activities of the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) into its programme.

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