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The neutron

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

Why use neutrons?

When beams of neutrons are used to probe small samples of materials they have the power to reveal what cannot be seen using other types of radiation.  Neutrons appear to behave either as particles or as waves or as microscopic magnetic dipoles. It is these specific properties which enable them to yield information which is often impossible to obtain using other techniques.

Electrically Neutral – neutrons are non-destructive and can penetrate deep into matter. This makes them an ideal probe for biological materials and samples under extreme conditions of pressure, temperature, magnetic field or within chemical reaction vessels.

Microscopically Magnetic – they possess a magnetic dipole moment which makes them sensitive to magnetic fields generated by unpaired electrons in materials.  Precise information on the magnetic behaviour of materials at atomic level can be collected.  In addition, the scattering power of a neutron off an atomic nucleus depends on the orientation of the neutron and the spin of the atomic nuclei in a sample. This makes the neutron a powerful instrument for detecting the nuclear spin order.

Ångstrom wavelengths – neutron wavelengths range from 0.1 Å to 1000 Å, making them an ideal probe of atomic and molecular structures, be they single atomic species or complex biopolymers.

Energies of millielectronvolts – their energies are of the same magnitude as the diffusive motion in solids and liquids, the coherent waves in single crystals (phonons and magnons), and the vibrational modes in molecules.  It is easy to detect any exchange of energy between a sample of between 1microeV (even 1 neV with spin-echo) and 1eV and an incoming neutron.

Randomly sensitive – with neutrons the variation in scattering power from one nucleus to another within a sample varies in a quasi-random manner.  This means that lighter atoms are visible despite the presence of heavier atoms, and neighbouring atoms may be distinguished from each other.  In addition, contrast can be varied in certain samples using isotopic substitution (for example D for H, or one nickel isotope for another); specific structural features can thus be highlighted.  The neutron is particularly sensitive to hydrogen atoms; it is therefore a powerful probe of hydrogen storage materials, organic molecular materials, and biomolecular samples or polymers.