What is the ILL's mission?
The ILL is a service facility. Its purpose is to provide the international scientific community with the brightest beams of neutrons possible.
Most of its neutron beams are used to probe materials. The fields of investigation range from technology applications to biology and health.
Neutrons hold the key to many important questions related to the fundamental laws governing our universe. They are also themselves objects of great scientific interest.
What do neutrons tell us?
Neutrons interact with the nuclei of matter. By observing how they are deviated and how they change speed we obtain precise information about the position and the motion of the nuclei.
They also behave like small compass needles and can provide unique insight into magnetism. [more]
How does this knowledge benefit society?
Modern societies are technology driven. Progress in many scientific areas depends on understanding materials at their molecular level, whether we are interested in the components of an electronic circuit, the membranes and contacts of a fuel cell or battery, or proteins in a biological cell. Neutrons often provide decisive information for developing applications.
Can this knowledge be obtained in a different way?
Modern science possesses a variety of methods to investigate the structure and dynamics of materials. Each of these has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Neutrons have a number of unique advantages, including amongst others their high penetrative power and sensitivity to magnetic fields. These make them an indispensible tool for the study of matter. Without neutrons the scientific community would simply be blind to some of the phenomena in the microcosmos.
It is the outstanding observation capacities of neutrons that justify the investment being made into neutron facilities. Capital investment in the ILL amounts to almost 2 billion euros; the Institute has an annual budget of about €100m.
Who uses the ILL?
The experiments performed at the ILL are chosen following a highly competitive selection process involving international experts. The ILL receives almost 1500 requests for access to neutron beamtime every year. We are only able to accept about half of these.
About 1500 researchers travel to the ILL every year from all over the world to perform experiments.
Where does the money come from?
The ILL is an international facility.
It is run by its Associates, the three founding countries Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Each of the founding countries contributes about 25 % to the annual budget.
The remaining funding is provided by the 11 Scientific Members (Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Belgium, Slovakia, Denmark, Poland and Slovenia).
The ILL thus caters to more than 90 % of the European neutron scattering community.
The ILL provides a showcase for a Europe collaborating successfully through the promotion of science and intercultural relations.
Are there other neutron facilities in the world?
Given the importance of neutrons, it is not surprising that there is a highly competitive network of neutron facilities all over the world.
The ILL has flagship status among neutron facilities. It offers the brightest neutron beams over a wide range of energies. As the world leader in neutron scattering the Institute plays a leading role in promoting the scientific reputation of the Grenoble region.
How is the ILL retaining its world-leading position?
It is one of the ILL's missions to provide the scientific community with innovative instrumentation for neutron science. The ILL is therefore continuously monitoring and developing neutron transport and neutron detection techniques, whilst upgrading its own facilities in the process.
Its most recent modernisation campaign involved more than €50m in investment and has resulted in over a 25-fold increase in performance. The neutron source itself is of such ingenious design that it seems difficult to improve on it further.
Why does the ILL need a nuclear reactor?
All the neutrons on earth are bound in nuclei. Some of these nuclei are unstable, and they free up neutrons when they decay. This is the case of uranium, used in the ILL reactor. In commercial power plants the decay process is exploited to produce energy. At the ILL the reactor is used to extract neutrons from uranium nuclei for scientific exploitation. This explains the small size and overall design of the ILL reactor.
Are there alternative ways of producing neutrons?
Neutrons can also be obtained by bombarding heavy nuclei like mercury with protons. This produces a pulsed beam of neutrons and has its advantages. Up to now however these so-called spallation sources do not compete with the ILL in terms of total flux. This will only be the case for the ESS (investment cost of €1.5 billion), which in not expected to become fully operational before 2025. The ILL will therefore remain indispensible to European neutron users for many years to come.