So much more than the quiet neighbour of the sub-atomic world, neutrons hold the key to so many breakthroughs – from the origin of the universe to novel medicines. Which is why it is such a worry that three neutron science reactors in Europe have stopped operating in the last year. We spoke to Helmut Schoberabout the ‘neutron gap’…
So, the ‘neutron gap’ – that sounds very dramatic. How has this come about?
In 2019, three of Europe’s neutron facilities closed: BER-II in Berlin, Orphée in Paris and JEEP II outside Oslo. The former two especially supported large communities of scientists that have made important contributions to the methods of neutron science. Europe has always held a leading position in the global ‘big science’ community, however if we want this advantage in neutron science to be maintained and developed further, then the impact of these closures will need to be carefully managed to prevent a negative impact on scientific research.
A lack of neutrons then… but should we really be worried about that?
With these closures resulting in fewer options and opportunities for researchers to access neutrons, it is important to ensure the potential of the remaining world-leading facilities is fully exploited. Neutron science has enabled us to investigate the dynamics of lithium-ion batteries, lay the foundations for the development of medicines and explore the origin of the universe – to name just a few examples. This means that we will rely more on the continual upgrades at our remaining neutron science facilities, including the FRM II in Munich, the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, ISIS near Oxford and the SINQ facility at Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland to maintain Europe’s scientific excellence.
It cannot stop here however – the long-term financial viability of these sources, including future upgrades, must be secured for the decade to come, and these investments must be translated into a high-impact science programme. Only that way can we meet Europe’s ambitions for competitive innovation, commercalisation and a route to a greener future.
Why is there such a strong neutron science legacy in Europe – and is it important to maintain this?
Europe is home to a world-leading set of large-scale analytical facilities using neutron beams, which translates to cutting-edge research. Each year, over 5,000 scientists and engineers across all fields of science utilise the instruments of Europe’s neutron research facilities. Neutron science holds enormous potential at every stage of innovation, from basic research through to market commercialisation.
In addition, Europe is increasing its focus towards averting environmental disaster and maintaining economic competitiveness, with both the European Union and national governments looking to green technologies for help. Such ambitions rely on our ability to innovate and research new alternatives – powered by Europe’s existing highly developed academic network, and range of assets for researchers.
Tell us about the new European Spallation Source?
The European Spallation Source (ESS) is a new neutron source which is under construction in Sweden. It was conceived more than 20 years ago and is expected to become scientifically active in 2023. To alleviate the impact of the closures of the past year, it is essential that ESS joins the club of operating neutron facilities as soon as possible. Europe must ask itself why building large scientific facilities takes so long. The pioneers of neutron science showed that agility is possible, building the original ILL in just over four years. We must regain that agility if we are to keep up pace.
In some ways neutron science is little known, but it has applications in so many disciplines… why is it so under-considered by the wider science community?
Neutron science is today recognised as an indispensable analytical tool in basically all areas of natural sciences – from fundamental physics to medical research. This breadth of application was not evident from the beginning, when neutron science was confined to the realm of physics.
The successful transition from a specific field of research towards a broadly applicable mature tool of investigation is a real accomplishment. This is particularly the case if we take into account that researchers do not have easy access to neutrons ‘at the bench’ like they do with a tool such as x-rays.
This evolution was supported by a service-oriented business model that now has become standard practice for most large-scale analytical methods. It relies on continuous adaptation to the changing needs of the users is a question of long-term survival in a highly competitive and permanently evolving environment. Requests for neutrons will come from an even broader community in the future – each of which will expect tailored solutions to their specific needs, covering the full range of innovation process from basic to close-to-market research.
Living up to these expectations within a non-extensible framework of resources, and with the obligation of striving for excellence, constitutes a real challenge for the neutron facilities. Sharing the load via strategic collaboration will be indispensable in this context. This is one of the reasons why the recently created League of advanced European Neutrons Sources (LENS) is so important.
Helmut Schober is Director, Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) and Chair of the League of Advanced European Neutron Sources (LENS)