Neutrons: The Science of Everyday Life

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Research with neutrons gives us knowledge that improves our everyday lives, our health and our environment. It is, at the same time, a necessary component to solving society's grand challenges.

Discoveries Large and Small

Neutron science is the science of everyday life. It is important for the development of new and better computer chips, cosmetics, detergents, textiles, paints, fuels, drugs, batteries and plastics. Industrial drivers, such as fuel cells, superconductors, innovative structural engineering, climate, transportation and food technologies, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and clean energy, are all dependent on advances in the capacity and capability of the science of neutron scattering.

The many thousands of products created and improved through materials science using neutrons are essential to our basic quality of life and our economic growth.

At the same time, research conducted using neutrons is puzzling out some of the most long-standing and complex problems that science and medicine have ever confronted. Among these are the as yet unknown mechanisms of how DNA sustains life at the molecular level, and the precise position, structure and function of the proteins that determine its structure. The solutions to some of the most daunting life science challenges of the next century rely on the superior mapping and three-dimensional modelling of proteins, which the more powerful and sophisticated neutron instruments at ESS will provide.

Dramatic Improvements for the Study of Organic Molecules

The special instruments at ESS promise significant (multiple) improvement of measuring performance compared with what is possible today. This dramatic improvement will be particularly important for the study of complex molecules, such as organic molecules.
With neutrons, researchers are able to study the building blocks of the human body, particularly single hydrogen atoms, which play a highly important role. As such, researchers can gain new insights on:

  • The DNA molecules and proteins that control aging and cancer
  • How the skeleton is built up during childhood and how osteoporosis causes it to deteriorate, thereby creating remedies for skeleton diseases and changes caused by the ageing process
  • Organ and bodily functions, like muscles, teeth and digestion
  • How to construct better medical implants that are more durable and entirely bio-compatible
  • Biological materials with complex structures, such as blood and cell membranes
  • Gene therapy
  • Biosensors
  • Carbohydrates and cellulose

New knowledge in these areas makes it possible to develop new techniques and more effective treatments and medicines.

More Efficient Medicines with Fewer Side Effects

How are medications received by the body? How do they work inside the body?
By studying the proteins and enzymes that create various diseases, researchers can contribute to the development of new medicines and treatments. Pharmaceutical researchers need to obtain a good understanding of the proteins found in the human body, since they act as receptors for the molecules of the medication. In other words, the proteins are the ”key holes” that the medicines – the keys – shall ”unlock.”
Therefore, if scientists can study the details of different proteins in the human body, they can more easily create medicines that match those proteins.
Today, scientists have, by means of neutrons and X-ray experiments, started the journey towards a cure for Alzheimer’s, through studying the structure in those different substances which affect the brain and its nerves. Neutrons have also helped researchers to create drug delivery systems that are time-released in specific parts of the body, create isotopes used in hospitals, and find natural antibiotics for the treatment of multi-resistant bacteria.

The high-performance that ESS can offer will be important to efficient structure-based medicine development. With brighter neutron beams, scientists will be able to study enzymes and proteins in their natural environment and with greater precision, and will also be able to study biological systems and processes that change over time. Researchers will have a new powerful tool to study the properties and functions of proteins and cell membranes, and how they integrate with, for example, medicines.

Understanding how proteins, enzymes and other biological material work on the molecular and atomic level is one of the keys to understanding the mysteries of life and the body. Neutrons are very well suited for studying the dynamics of individual atoms and molecules.

Read more about the impact of ESS on life science research.

Research using neutrons is particularly suitable when sampling sensitive materials, such as biological samples, which are easily damaged when other measurement techniques are used. Neutron scattering is also the only method with which the researcher can study individual hydrogen atoms, which play a particularly important role in biological systems.

Fuel Cells Driven by Hydrogen

The search for new technology to transition to a future economy with significantly less carbon dioxide emissions than today is a great challenge of our time. Here, hydrogen gas plays a central role. Neutron sources like ESS are the best tools researchers have to study elusive hydrogen-based structures in detail.

Fuel cells are central to the development of the future hydrogen economy. Fuel cells are a type of “battery”, which must be continuously filled with hydrogen gas in order to function. When hydrogen gas and oxygen react, this is converted into electricity and heat. The only exhaust gas is pure water. Presently, fuel cells are being developed for many different purposes, from home heating and powering vehicles, to operating laptops and telephones.

Solar Power

Neutrons can examine and optimise new materials, such as thin layers of polymers used for photovoltaics. This is a part of the effort to develop cost-effective, reliable, efficient and environmentally friendly solar power.

Fuels and Catalysts

At the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in the USA, research is being conducted to extract ethanol from cellulose-rich materials, like grass and agricultural waste. Today, ethanol for environmentally friendly vehicles is extracted mainly from cereals like corn, which leads to competition for crops intended as food. The fuel sources of tomorrow will be built upon our knowledge of the properties of materials on the atomic level.

Better Batteries

Telephone batteries that last longer and can be charged many more times are one possibility. With neutrons, it is possible to follow how lithium ions migrate within the battery. Lithium is very difficult to see with today’s technology, but with a powerful neutron source it is possible to follow how the material’s structure changes when lithium is moved, meaning better materials can be produced.

Climate Technology

Materials research at ESS can help to develop energy solutions that do less damage to the climate. Methane gas stored in ice in the shallow earth constitutes an enormous energy resource, but it is also a powerful greenhouse gas. Today, scientists cannot analyse the crystal chemistry in the substances that contain the gas, but with ESS that will be possible.

Read more about the impact of ESS on energy research.

Neutrons enable the potential for developing more environmentally friendly materials and processes. From better plastics to carbon capturing materials, the road to a better future may be driven with hydrogen fuels developed with neutron science.

Superconducting Materials

Superconducting materials allow the transport of electricity without any losses, which means large energy gains. Research with neutrons is one of the most fundamental tools for understanding how magnetic and superconductive materials function. This in turn can help create solutions for improved electric conductivity, magnets that have new properties, and technology for transportation that uses resources more efficiently.

The origin of superconductivity in so-called unconventional superconductors exhibiting the highest superconducting transition temperatures is still unknown. Neutron scattering experiments have shown that in those materials, magnetism and superconductivity are interwoven. Understanding the microscopic details better, and eventually learning to create materials for room temperature superconducting, would offer enormous macro-economic savings.

Stronger and Lighter Materials

The grand challenges for today's materials – to be lighter, stronger, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly – require extensive knowledge of the materials' properties, beginning on the atomic scale. The information is needed by materials scientists to be able to tailor the properties of new materials for optimum performance. Neutron scattering techniques are unique for studying materials in that they help us not only understand the atomic structure of materials, but also their behaviour under different conditions. This has helped to understand materials from a wide range of applications, from shampoos and turbine blades to magnetic storage materials.

LEDs in Household Lamps

Gallium nitride is a new material that was developed with the help of neutron research. It is most commonly used in LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes), e.g. the display for mobile telephones.

New research has developed more powerful LEDs as a light source, which is increasingly replacing the types of energy-saving lamps currently used. This means huge benefits in the form of lower energy consumption, significantly longer burn time and less heat emission.

Faster and More Powerful Computers

Giant magnetoresistance (GMR) is one example of how basic research has been directly used in materials development. Research in this area was awarded with the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics. You can already find an application of this knowledge in your own computer hard drive. GMR technology has accelerated the development of smaller, more powerful computers.

Neutrons are one of the most powerful tools used to study the magnetic properties of materials at the atomic level, thereby providing the foundation for the development of GMR systems. To create a GMR system, it is necessary to build structures out of materials that have the thickness of just a few atomic layers. GMR has both opened the door to the technology of spintronics, electronics based on magnetic polarisation, and has become one of the driving forces behind nanotechnology.

Why do mobile phone and computer technology develop so fast? Where do new, smart lighting technologies, such as LEDs, come from? New products full of advanced materials surround us in our everyday life. We often take these for granted, but behind each new material, there is much research.

As a result of fundamental research, scientists and industries have obtained knowledge that has improved many of the products in our daily lives, such as mobile phones, computers, lighting and nano-materials. In the future we will be able to tailor completely new materials according to the needs of different industries. In the future, we are sure to see materials with entirely new physical properties. New technologies and tools will make it possible to create custom materials based on industry requirements that have been unthinkable until now.

Some of the technologies that today’s scientists are particularly interested in are superconducting materials and stronger and lighter materials.

High-Tech Paint

Paint must be thick enough to adhere to a paintbrush, yet thin enough to be spread over the intended surface. With neutrons, it is possible to develop materials with exactly these characteristics. Researchers can also study how to mix water and oil in order to design water-based paint that is water-repellent once it dries, and can then stand exposure to wind, dirt and water for as long as 20 years.

Environmentally Friendly Cleaning Agents

Cleaning and laundering are complicated chemical processes. Zeolite is a mineral that, among other things, provides the foundation of many detergents. One of its key properties is the ability to soften hard water. With neutrons, it is possible to study how this material behaves and reacts in water. ESS can help bring about more environmentally friendly detergents that provide the same or better results.

Sunscreen and Cosmetics

By looking at how molecules move and behave in a liquid, it is possible to develop creams and cosmetics with new and improved characteristics, such as more effective sunscreens and pain-relief creams.

Food Science

Enzymes can control the speed of chemical processes. In order to develop new, healthier foods, without affecting the flavour, neutrons are used to study enzyme structures, and what happens during chemical processes.

Ordinary products like soap, face creams, detergents and lubricants are sometimes technological miracles. They are often comprised of complex liquids that can change their form and properties depending on how the molecules in the material are arranged.

Surface chemistry is an interdisciplinary science based on chemistry and physics. It plays an important role in materials research. It is possible to study such wide-ranging topics as the lubricants used in engineering, the design of pharmaceutical products, and paper products that have different types of characteristics. Common to each is that the surface properties play a fundamental role in how the product will function. 

In order to make a liquid substance adhere to a material, it is necessary to understand the tiniest structures that exist within the material. For example, how can oil be distributed to protect the inside of an engine at both high and low temperatures, without just ”running off”?

The answer can be found by studying the molecules and customising these so-called complex liquids. In such studies, neutrons provide powerful tools. In particular, complex materials represent an area where ESS will have the greatest potential to contribute with new discoveries. This technology is also used to help understand and develop other chemical products, particularly oil-based and water-based mixtures, such as creams and soap solutions.

A multitude of day-to-day products have complex structures that are often explored with neutrons. The mechanics behind their properties can be used for developing other complex fluids and soft materials within the manufacturing industry. Today neutrons have contributed to the development of a large range of products, such as plastics, cleaners, cosmetics and synthetic fibres for the textile industry.

The Big Questions

Using the technology at ESS, the next generation of neutron scientists will advance ongoing investigations into the boundless complexities and unknowns of the human brain, its neural networks, and the workings of memory. Such studies will further the rapid progress of applying these discoveries to the nanocircuitry of machines, advancing the increasingly sophisticated science of artificial intelligence.

Research at ESS has implications even for some of the most fundamental dilemmas in physics and philosophy. Promising investigations into the structure and origin of the universe, and others attempting to reconcile incompatible and yet functional, theories of gravity and quantum physics, suggest the possibility of breakthroughs in human knowledge that go beyond our wildest imaginings. ESS is an essential investment in the future health of Europe's people and society.

Neutron Science at ESS

Enabling scientific excellence is at the core of the ESS mission. The European Spallation Source will provide experimental possibilities to researchers from academia as well as industry.

More in-depth scientific information, as well as feature stories on research at ESS and its partner institutions, can be found in the Science & Instruments area of the website.

Explore ESS through the eyes of its scientific community through our publications, feature stories, and the four ESS science focus areas:

Chemistry of Materials, Magnetic & Electronic Phenomena

Some of the most exciting discoveries in a generation are being made with neutron science.

Read More

Life Science & Soft Condensed Matter

ESS will enable some areas of life science, medical and pharmacological research to investigate with neutrons for the first time.

Read More

Particle Physics

A fundamental part of ESS. The Standard Model is not what it used to be.

Read More

Some examples of the science that will be investigated at ESS from Senior Science Advisor Sindra Petersson Årsköld.

CREDIT: VR/Vinnovase/Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research


How has science changed our lives? How will neutrons help us meet the challenges of the future? And what's it like to work in an international science facility under construction? This talk will take you on a trip through archaeology, life science and magnetism, and end up at a huge construction site.

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A full accounting of the impact of neutron research in Europe on science, technology, Industry and society, published by the European Neutron Scattering Association (ENSA)