Townhall Report – Fundamental Physics, AI and Quantum.

The UK XFEL User Engagement Campaign – Part three: Plymouth Edition.

The UK XFEL project is a visionary effort to give UK researchers access to next-generation X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) capabilities. The project is being managed by myself, and is a cross departmental effort between the STFC Technology Department, ASTeC and the Central Laser Facility. Just as importantly however is our engagement with future users and operators of such a facility. As such we also have a dedicated science team of over 50 academics, headed up by Jon Marangos of Imperial College. As part of our engagement with the science and industrial communities, we’ve been hosting various Townhalls across the UK in an effort to grow the FEL community, gauge appetite for our design ideas, and hear more about novel FEL experiments already taking place at existing facilities. 

So, at 5 am on Wednesday the 17th of January, I set off to Plymouth University to run our latest event focusing on Fundamental Physics, AI and Quantum. I was joined on this intrepid journey by other members of the design team: Dave Dunning, Alan Mak, Storm Mathisen and Jim Clarke, who, I’m sure, were just as happy about the early start as I was. Each of our events has a science theme, which help provide structure to the talks. Our first two meetings where themed, ‘Frontiers of Measurement’ and ‘Materials, Chemistry and Biology at Extreme Conditions’, hosted by Queens University and the University of Strathclyde respectively. To date, each Townhall meeting has been a two-day event, starting with an opening talk aimed at giving an overview of the project, updates on the facility design and a review of XFEL science, before moving on to the stated science and technology theme. 

After the inevitable delayed trains and under stocked refreshment carts, we arrived in Plymouth to meet with the local organising team at the brand-new Babbage building, named in honour of Charles Babbage for his transformative breakthroughs in computing – very fitting, given the theme of the meeting. As at both previous Townhalls, there was a vibrant set of talks and discussions, with numerous ideas to utilise the proposed features of a next-generation XFEL, how the fundamental physics community need to engage early to help shape the design, and potential novel acceleration techniques which could be deployed at a FEL. Discussions around the data requirements of such a facility and how it can be impacted by the AI/machine learning community were also highlighted during the sessions. The first day was closed by our keynote speaker, Professor Sir Peter Knight who delivered an insightful talk explaining how the UK has developed a long term national strategy for quantum technology.

The second day started, as everyday should, with a very fresh run around the harbour (obligatory Strava link). We’d purposely scheduled less speakers on the second day allowing plenty of time for discussions and audience participation, meaning everyone got to provide input into the design and specification the design team had presented and feedback on the science presented over the two days. The discussions didn’t get too heated, which was a shame as the heating in the building was suffering from new build niggles and the sub-zero sea air was seeping in through the fire escapes. But despite this, the Townhall was a hugely successful event (thank you to Shakil, Tom, Ben, James, and Mara at the University of Plymouth), and so we started our de-brief on the journey back up north with a stand-up meeting curtesy of Avanti Rail. There was much to discuss and plenty to bring back to feed into both the refreshed science case and the conceptual design study.

A further four Townhall events are planned for 2024, with the next being hosted by the Diamond Light Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, with a focus on Life Sciences. The project team encourages everyone interested to join either in person or online – details will be released via the project website and mailing list (

Led by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the UK XFEL project is now a year into a three-year Conceptual Design and Options Analysis, supported by the UK Research and Innovation Infrastructure Fund. By the end of 2025 the project team will have evaluated the conceptual design of a new facility based in the UK, as well as assessing alternative options for UK users gaining access to next-generation XFEL capabilities by investing at existing international facilities – exciting!

See all the contributions from the conference here: