Welcome Physics World  August 2022

Newer, better, cleaner

Welcome to this Physics World Instrumentation & Vacuum Briefing, which features interviews with leading personalities, technology updates and research news from laboratories around the world.

Nuclear fusion – the process that powers the Sun – could become an abundant source of low-carbon clean energy. The formidable challenge facing scientists and engineers is how to create a fusion reactor that produces large amounts of usable energy. In 2024, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) facility will open in the UK and the £220-million facility will be a prototype for energy production. Despite operating at temperatures on par with the Sun, STEP will need myriad cryogenic systems to keep it running as Joe McEntee discovers in “STEP dream requires cryogenic innovation at scale and at pace”. 

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is an important goal for governments, companies and individuals worldwide. The Swedish company Atlas Copco, which owns the Edwards vacuum instrumentation brand, is doing its bit by setting science-based targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with its business operations – and the operations of its customers and suppliers. Sara Fry, who is Head of Safety Health Environment at Atlas Copco’s Vacuum Technique business area in Burgess Hill, UK explains how the company will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 46% by 2030. (“Vacuum supplier sets science-based targets for greenhouse gas reductions”).

Test equipment forms the backbone of most physics labs and many physicists will be dab hands at operating an oscilloscope or lock-in amplifier. But many instruments available today look much like those from decades ago, and the industry has not kept up with advances in user interfaces and digital technology – according to Daniel Shaddock of Liquid Instruments. The Australian physicist has spent much of his career developing instrumentation for detecting gravitational waves and he explains why working on the spaceborne LISA Pathfinder mission led to the commercial development of computer-based instruments that can be reconfigured to perform a range of test and measurement tasks (“All-in-one measurement solution for the lab”).

The research highlights in this briefing include a new way to use ultracold atoms to simulate the early universe and a pioneering optical oscilloscope that could benefit both basic research and optical telecommunications. We also discover why civil engineers could soon be using a vacuum-based system to detect tiny deviations of gravity caused by sinkholes under roads and explain why nanophotonic patterns on scintillators look set to boost the performance of radiation detectors.