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Neutron Science


The use of neutrons as research tools gives scientists unprecedented insight into the structure and properties of materials important in biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering. ORNL’s long history of neutron science began in the 1940s with the pioneering neutron scattering studies of Ernest Wollan and Clifford Shull. Shull was co-recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics for this groundbreaking work. Today, the laboratory is home to two of the most powerful neutron science facilities in the world—the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor. The SNS produces the world’s most intense pulsed neutron beams, and HFIR creates steady-state neutron streams as bright as any on Earth.

By applying neutron scattering to materials research, scientists obtain remarkable insights that contribute to new technologies to address our energy needs, such as superconducting power cables that dramatically reduce power-transmission losses and prevent outages; liquid transportation fuels produced from biomass; and magnetic refrigerators that use half the energy of conventional appliances. Developing the advanced materials that support these technologies depends on scientists’ ability to manipulate the properties of materials at the atomic level, and neutron science is a key to these efforts.

Neutron scattering shows directly where atoms are and what they are doing. It allows researchers to see in real time how the structure of a material shifts with changes in temperature, pressure, and magnetic or electronic fields. It also traces the atomic motions and electron states that give materials properties such as magnetism or the ability to conduct electricity—essential information in the pursuit of energy savings. Managing the world’s appetite for energy will require producing more power, more sustainably, and using it more frugally. Neutron scattering supports the creation of new materials for those purposes.

ORNL’s world-leading neutron research facilities provide the international scientific community with unmatched capabilities for understanding the structure and properties of materials, biological systems, and the fundamental physics of the neutron—all while bringing outstanding scientists, students, and teachers together with the laboratory’s top researchers.

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