Preparing to Test Drive ESS

Andreas Schreyer Director Science
Andreas Schreyer, ESS Director for Science

What’s the first thing you do when you buy a new car? The test drive. First, you take it to a road you already know to feel how the car performs. Then, once you’ve figured out its new capabilities, you take it down new roads. The first test drive of the ESS facility is what that the organisation is gearing up for, as the transition from design and blueprints to fully functioning machine continues.

First Science in 2023 is the next momentous goal everyone at ESS is working towards. Yet, it’s important to understand “First Science” on the bigger timeline, including all the science “firsts” it takes to get there. 

“In simplest terms,” explains Prof. Andreas Schreyer, Director for Science at ESS, “First Science happens during the commissioning of instruments. Part of commissioning the instruments is testing and doing the first demonstration experiments to show that we get good data using samples compared with those measured in existing facilities. Only after that do we begin first experiments on samples which have not been measured elsewhere. We need to be sure that everything runs reliably with no bugs when we get to the science user stage.”

Reality set in during 2019

The reality of that impending test drive set in during 2019 with the handover and inauguration of the first instrument hall. The 140-metre wide and 13-metre high Long Instrument Hall will house eight instruments that will completely fill the building. With this and the next instrument hall becoming available later in 2020, as well as instrument components beginning to arrive for installation, ESS is beginning preparations to commission the first instruments.

The first instruments are chosen to be relatively familiar and easy to get up to speed with right away. As Prof. Schreyer shares, “ESS must be a place people know they can come and get their data quickly and efficiently so new discoveries can be made. Excellence in science is to have the brightest ideas, gather the brightest team, and be first to come up with the explanation for some challenge or phenomenon to drive your field forward. As we move from a construction project to an operating science facility, we must work hard to generate such an environment.”

Within the commissioning plan, ESS has anticipated risks so that if one instrument is delayed, the next is on deck so the organisation can adjust to get back on schedule relatively quickly. A user office function also started up in 2019 to ensure that ESS has everything in place to receive proposals, conduct external expert review, and select the first experiments.

First hints of science

Yet while preparing for First Science, there’s already science happening at ESS. The ESS Deuteration and Macromolecular Crystallisation lab (DEMAX) began initial operations in 2019 to gradually establish a system that runs smoothly in time for the First Science milestone. The service provides unique samples only a few institutes in the world can do. The complex process exchanges hydrogen atoms with deuterium, which interacts with the neutrons to mark certain parts of the molecule and is widely used in neutron research within life sciences and with soft matter. Such samples are specifically tailored for use with the first instruments coming online at ESS, and are being measured at other facilities now as a dry run.

Towards the tipping point

The organisational readiness initiative during 2019 was a key step in transitioning ESS from design and construction to a scientific outfit as we rapidly approach the tipping point for First Science – the moment the first proton beam hits the target in 2022.

“Once we have beam on target,” says Prof. Schreyer, “the cascade of activities will be quite fast. About nine months after that, we expect First Science, and another nine months after that, we start user operations. So beam on target is when everything changes, because that’s when people will expect data and results. And it’s only two-and-a-half years away.”

By that time, ESS will have the first instruments ready to take the beam – what’s called “hot commissioning” – and begin safety checks, first experiments, etc.

Together for a brighter future

Anticipation picked up across the whole neutron community in 2019. With a neutron gap inevitable after the decommissioning of three older, reactor-based sources in Germany, France, and Norway, the League of Advanced Neutron Sources (LENS) kicked off activities to promote collaboration on neutron usage, advocate for the user community, and strengthen European neutron science.

Prof. Schreyer is helping lead the LENS development of a key landscape paper to define a vision and collaboration for strengthening European neutron science, as well as kicking off other practical collaborations such as a joint science colloquium with MAX IV.

“Our joint programmes are very well attended,” he shares, “and there’s an eagerness to develop more together. With the EU changing its science focus to more mission-based priorities, the whole science community needs to rearrange itself. As neutron sources, we must show how we can collaborate on a high level, providing key contributions to society not possible otherwise. Our excitement for that future is building right along with the ESS facility.”