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Harnessing the Power of Neutrons to Unravel the Most Profound Mysteries of the Universe


An aerial view of the European Fragmentation Source, February 2022. Credit: ESS

Scientists unleash the power of neutrons to improve understanding of everyday materials and tackle fundamental questions in physics.

Aside from the flashbacks that the hit Netflix series “Breaking Bad” may have conjured up, most of us have probably happily forgotten what we learned in chemistry lessons in school.

So here’s a quick look: Chemistry looks at the building blocks of our physical world, like atoms, and the changes they undergo. An atom consists of a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons.

Release the neutrons

Now for something high school chemistry didn’t teach us: the humble neutron, found in the nucleus of every atom except hydrogen, could—if manipulated the right way—illuminate everything from the climate and energy crisis, to health and quantum statistics.

One such method is an amazing process known as spallation, in which high-energy particles destabilize the nucleus of an atom, which in turn releases some of the neutrons that are there.

When used, these newly liberated neutrons can be used like X-rays to map the internal structure of materials.

Currently under construction in Lund, Sweden, the European Scattering Source (ESS) is expected to come online in 2027. Once it achieves its full specifications, its unprecedented flux range and spectrum are set to make it the most powerful and versatile neutron source for science. In the world.

The purpose of the facility is to create neutrons, a neutron beam, for use in scientific purposes, said Jamie Pendrop-Andersen, ESS’s head of innovation and industry.

Once the facility is up and running, scientists from all over Europe and the rest of the world will be able to use 15 different photonic lines to conduct basic research.

Not x-rayed

According to Andersen, a neutron beam is “not the same as an X-ray, but it is complementary and uses some of the same laws of physics.”

Like X-rays, neutrons can be used to probe biological materials and systems. But they interact with matter in different ways than photons in high-energy X-ray beams do, and so provide different types of information about their targets.

For example, neutron beams could say something about the internal dynamics of lithium-ion batteries, reveal obscure details from ancient artifacts or elucidate the mechanisms of bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics. It can also be used to explore the basics of physics. It almost sounds like a case of “what can’t they do?”

Neutron bombardment

As part of the BrightnESS-2 project coordinated in part by Andersen, technologies developed for the ESS have been shared with industry in Europe, to benefit society at large. For example, some of the power systems developed for ESS beamlines could be useful for renewable energy technologies, such as wind turbines.

Recently, ESS was approached by a European semiconductor manufacturer interested in the radiation fields that a neutron source can generate. The world we live in is constantly bombarded with neutrons, which are produced when high-energy particles from outer space, such as cosmic rays from the sun, hit Earth’s atmosphere. Over time, this exposure can damage electrical components.

The ESS can simulate this neutron bombardment, but on a much faster time scale, enabling it to be used to test the durability of critical electrical components, such as those used in aircraft, wind turbines and spacecraft.

ESS is now collaborating with other research institutes and companies to find a potential future use for a facility like ESS to meet these specific industry needs.

ESS 2.0

Although the ESS is still under construction, scientists are already working on upgrading the facility.

When ESS first opens, it will have one broker, but the HighNESS project is developing a second broker system. The moderators slow down the neutrons generated during the fragmentation process, to an energy level that scientific instruments can use.

“Neutron energy is really important in a neutron facility, because depending on neutron energy, you can do different kinds of physics,” said Valentina Santoro, HighNESS project coordinator.

While the first medium will provide a high brightness, which is a very focused beam of neutrons, the source being developed by the HighNESS project will provide a high intensity, in other words, a large number of neutrons.

The two mediums will allow scientists to explore different aspects of the dynamics and structure of materials such as polymers, biomolecules, liquid metals and batteries.

Basic puzzle

The second medium will also allow explorations of fundamental physics to try to see the neutron become an antineutron for the first time.

“This is very interesting, because you observe a phenomenon where matter becomes antimatter,” said Santoro, a particle physicist at the ESS. “If you observe something like this, you can understand one of the biggest unsolved mysteries: why is there more matter than antimatter in the universe.”

Santoro said that this experiment can only be done at the ESS, because it requires a large number of neutrons and the ESS would have the highest number in the world.

“You only need one neutron that becomes an antineutron, and that is it, I found this process where matter becomes antimatter,” Santoro said.

Provided by Horizon: European Union Journal of Research and Innovation

the quote: How the humble neutron could help solve some of the universe’s deepest mysteries (2023, May 30) Retrieved May 30, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-05-humble-neutron-universe-deepest-mysteries. html

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