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What are neutrons used for?

The ILL has firmly established itself as a pioneer in neutron science and technology. Neutron beams are used to carry out frontier research in diverse fields.

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The neutron

What are neutrons used for?

The way neutrons scatter off gases, liquids and solid matter gives us information about the structure of these materials (elastic neutron scattering). The neutron excitation of atoms gives information about the binding energy within matter (inelastic neutron scattering). Their ability to act as 'small elementary magnets' makes neutrons an ideal probe for the determination of structures and dynamics of unknown magnetic matter.

Heavy nuclei can be split with neutrons. This can shed light on a number of still unknown processes in atomic fission. Neutrons can also be captured by nuclei. The process releases secondary radiation which can be used to determine the inner structure of these nuclei.

We indicate below how neutrons are used in different fields of research.

Condensed-matter physics, materials science and chemistry

  • Examination of the structure of new materials, for example new ceramic high-temperature superconductors or magnetic materials (important for electronic and electrical applications).
  • Clarification of still unknown phenomena in processes such as the recharging of electric batteries.
  • Storing of hydrogen in metals, an important feature for the development of renewable energy sources.
  • Analysis of important parameters (for example elasticity) in polymers (for example plastic material).
  • Colloid research gives new information on such diverse subjects as the extraction of oil, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, food industry and medicine.

Biosciences

Biological materials, naturally rich in hydrogen and other light elements, are ideal samples for analysis with neutrons.

  • Cell Membranes
  • Proteins
  • Virus Investigations
  • Photosynthesis in Plants

Nuclear and elementary particle physics

  • Experiments on the physical properties of the neutron and the neutrino.
  • Production of extremely slow neutrons down to 5 m/s (the velocity of the neutrons which leave the reactor is generally about 2200 m/s). This enables completely new experiments to be performed with such particles.
  • Experiments on atomic fission and the structure of nuclei.

Engineering sciences

Since neutron diffraction is non-destructive, it is ideal for the analysis of different technical phenomena in materials.

  • Visualisation of residual stress in materials (example: railway rails).
  • Hardening and corrosion phenomena in concrete.
  • Inhomogeneity and trace elements in materials.