HELEN laser in the late 1970s.

Major Review of High-Power Laser Research in the UK Published

A major review paper 'A History of High-Power Laser Research and Development in the United Kingdom' has recently been published in the journal High Power Laser Science and Engineering.

Colin Danson
Lead author Colin Danson.

The review was led by Colin Danson (AWE Distinguished Scientist and AWE Coordinator for OxCHEDS) and brought together 67 co-authors from academia, the national laboratories, industry and the defence sector. This comprehensive overview was put together in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the invention of the laser by Theodore Maiman in 1960.

The review covers: research and development at twelve UK universities and the work of the x-ray laser consortium; the role of the AWE, the Central Laser Facility (CLF) and UKAEA Culham in providing a national focus for laser development; the role of industry in the exploitation of laser development and the supply of components and sub-systems for these activities; and the role of the industrial defence sector in companies such as Ferranti, BAE Systems, and Leonardo.


An early HeNe-laser system at Oxford from 1963/64.
A very early helium-neon laser at Oxford in 1963/64.

The University of Oxford was the first UK institution to carry out R&D into lasers and have been key players in their exploitation ever since. It began when Dr John Sanders was on an eight-month sabbatical from Oxford to the Bell Laboratories in the USA, and wrote an early proposal for a laser using helium. On returning to Oxford, he started the laser group. The detailed activities within the group, right up to the present day, are presented in the review. The main input for the review from the Oxford side was from Emeritus Fellow Professor Colin Webb, who was head of the Atomic and Laser Physics department through the 1990s, supported by Justin Wark, Simon Hooker, and Paul Ewart.


Image of the HELEN laser at AWE from the late 1970s.
The HELEN laser during commissioning in the later 1970s.

AWE (then AWRE) were also early players in laser R&D in the UK with the High Power Laser Group setup in 1962. These early years saw the development of a broad range of lasers and associated technology leading to the construction of a large-scale facility at AWE: HELEN, in 1976. The facility was operational for nearly thirty years before being replaced by the much larger facility Orion, which became fully operational in 2013, with academic access being part of its operational programme from these first days.

The open-access article may be accessed here:

Colin N. Danson et. al.A history of high-power laser research and development in the United Kingdom, High Power Laser Science and Engineering 9, e18 (2012).