Using a weapons lab to understand the inner workings of the solar system

3 October 2016

In this month’s Physics World, Edwin Cartlidge discusses the weapon research labs that are granting academics access, and the potential benefits of lending out your lasers to research groups.

October Physics World

Nuclear deterrents remain controversial, but that doesn’t seem to be deterring a growing band of researchers who are flocking to defence labs to work with the same equipment that is designed to simulate nuclear weapons.

Labs such as the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in the UK and the National Ignition Facility (NIF) have been welcoming researchers to use their high-powered lasers for a few weeks each year, with this open house scheme benefiting both those working in academia and those in industry.

AWE boasts Orion, a £170 m laser that fires 12 high-powered beams generating immense pressures and temperatures – conditions similar to those that occur at the centres of stars and planets. The lasers are therefore ideal for plasma physicists and astrophysicists, with this year seeing two groups of researchers publishing papers using data collected via this behemoth instrument.

Gianluca Gregori and his colleagues from the University of Oxford certainly benefitted from visiting Orion. Their data were published in Nature Communications earlier this year. Using Orion, Gregori and his team were able to replicate the shock wave produced when a magnetised white dwarf sucks in plasma from a neighbouring star.

“We never felt like we were doing experiments for an ulterior purpose,” explains Gregori. “I think that the labs simply want to show that you do science as science; that their goal all the time is to get papers out in very high impact journals.”

There are benefits to both academics and to the defence facilities: the researchers are able to use high-quality, industry-standard lasers for their research, while those working at the facilities are hoping to tempt new talent into joining their teams.

Colin Danson, who is in charge of academic access at AWE, explains that lending out lasers is not just about advancing science, but also brand awareness.

“Plasma physics is a critical skill for people at AWE,” Danson says. “So we are trying to increase the visibility of the AWE brand and our capabilities to potential future recruits in plasma physics departments, giving us a chance to look at them and also to show what we can offer them here.”

“There is a huge intellectual pool in the academic community and not to tap into it would be criminal,” he says.

If you want to read more about the labs that are letting in researchers and the projects that are benefitting from this collaborative effort between industry and academia, get in touch for a digital copy of this month’s Physics World.

Also in this issue:

  • Features: The descent of mass – searching for violations in the universality of free fall
  • Lateral Thoughts: Access all areas – attending a scientific conference with a physical disability
  • Features: Breakthrough factors – does success come from hard graft or flashes of insight?

Access the October issue digitally now.


Also new this month: Physics World Focus on Neutron Science

In Europe, neutron scientists are facing up to a number of headwinds. One is the uncertainty caused by the recent UK vote to leave the European Union, while another is the impending closure of ageing reactors across the continent. Improvements to accelerator technology and instruments could help.


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