AWE scientist speaks about his life in lasers


Working with leading physicists in the UK, AWE scientist Colin Danson has been instrumental in the design, construction and operation of large‐scale laser facilities for over 30 years. He helped to pioneer the development of ultra‐high intensity lasers establishing world‐leading petawatt‐class user facilities, most notably Vulcan, and the Orion laser at AWE Aldermaston.

Colin Danson
Colin Danson

As part of AWE’s commitment to inspiring the current and next generation of scientists and engineers, Colin and his AWE peers have established key centres of excellence within UK academia at Imperial College London (Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies), University of Oxford (Oxford Centre for High Energy Density Science), University of Warwick (Warwick Centre for Computational Plasma Physics), and currently the York Plasma Institute (Centre for Doctorial Training in Fusion Energy).

Colin works with his fellow AWE physicists in managing the provision of access time to Orion for collaborative academic research. Recent experimental campaigns have covered the study of material under megabar pressures relevant to the conditions at the centre of giant planets and magnetic reconnection of plasmas relevant to Inertial Confinement Fusion. Colin also sits on the UK committee for the International Year of Light 2015, a UNESCO initiative.

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Defence Science asked Colin a few questions about his work.

What is your current role?  My job title is AWE Plasma Physics Distinguished Scientist and I work closely with the UK and international academic community to help build and maintain a thriving plasma physics base at AWE; to promote knowledge sharing and to manage the collaborative academic access programme to the Orion laser facility.

Tell us about your experience? I have over 30 years’ experience designing, building and operating large-scale laser facilities for plasma physics research. These facilities are the size of football stadia and hence are the result of a large multidisciplinary team effort. They are designed to achieve in the laboratory conditions close to those found at the centre of stars.

The work is incredibly varied and extremely rewarding. On a day‐to day basis I could be hosting scientific visits by academics to Orion, or visiting UK universities to discuss future research interests  of benefit  to AWE’s programme.  I could also be writing scientific review papers or collaborating  with scientists in deciding on the next phase of plasma physics experiments. I also act as Chief Editor of an international  journal ‘High Power Laser Science and Engineering’, which brings its own rewards working with the  broader community.



Where are are you based? My main place of work  is at AWE Aldermaston, within the Orion laser facility, but I work closely with a number of universities, so I am travelling a lot.  I also work closely with colleagues at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire.

Who do you work with?  I am part of a large multi‐disciplinary team within the plasma physics department at AWE, but also work closely with AWE's Chief Scientist's Office.

Describe a typical working day. There is nothing that I would call a ‘typical’ day. If I am in the office I first check my emails which can dictate my activities throughout the rest of the day. When we are working on one of the academic access experiments it’s very much a day in the Orion control rooms helping manage the shot programme and the logistics of the campaign. If it involves visiting a university, it’s engaging with the academics to identify future possibilities of mutual benefit, or discussing the progress of the work within one of AWE’s funded research centres.

What are you currently working on? I work on Orion which is one of the largest scientific capital projects ever built in the UK. I joined the project when it was still a concept as its scientific commissioning manager. This role used all my experience working with large teams of engineers and scientists to deliver and operate such facilities, but it was still a steep learning curve.

Working on Orion, which has an outward facing role, certainly puts you in the spotlight. These types of laser are few and far between and there is great international interest in getting access to such a facility to conduct AWE state‐of‐the‐art plasma physics research. This is not only benefitting AWE’s programme, but also the wider academic community. It is very rewarding when I am invited to international conferences to present the work of the facility or sit on review committees of other facilities around the world. The research is important in its own right, but can be used to fuel enthusiasm in the next generation of scientists who are our future.



Read more about AWE in the current issue of Defence Science - the magazine for Defence Science, Technology and Engineering.


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