Advanced materials are designed and applied almost everywhere; from robotics to genetics and almost everything in-between. The specific characteristics of a material, such as electrical conductivity, or tensile strength, make it suitable for a certain purpose. Efficient, effective final devices and systems utilise these unique characteristics but first require the identification and engineering of the best materials and components with which to build them. Neutron science therefore can lead to a huge range of applications in industry, from revealing points of weakness in materials, to enabling the analysis of samples under real-world testing conditions.
Neutron sources and instruments are themselves impressive feats of engineering. A substantial portion of the workforce at neutron facilities are therefore engineers, with a dedicated role in maintaining and innovating the infrastructure needed to support the best scientific output.
Stresses from the atomic to material level
Predicting how a sample will respond to factors such as large stress loads or high temperatures is important for ensuring advanced material components are built to the required specification. This is of particular importance with components like those used in transport, such as the wings of aircraft and the casings for jet engines; which must be resilient to extremely high temperatures and pressures while still maintaining high safety levels. Neutron analysis can be conducted while recreating these challenging conditions and non-destructively measuring the stresses and strains on engineering materials to discover potential areas of weakness, before they are put to work.
Metal matrix composites (MMCs) are materials used widely for applications as varied as tank armours and high performance cutting tools, but their complex composition of metal plus an organic compound makes them difficult to weld. Friction stir welding is a promising technique for overcoming this challenge, but generates residual stress which can significantly affect the material’s eventual properties. Neutron diffraction can be used to determine residual stress on specific areas of a material, enabling engineers to fully assess structural integrity and be more confident with the materials they are working with. Read more.
Reliable hip implants
Construction and manufacturing, from huge buildings to smaller products, relies on tailored materials. Medical devices, such as hip implants, bring a huge improvement in the quality of life of so many. Implants such as these are often coated in layers of calcium compounds to mimic bone density, but which can sometimes cause the implant to fail. With their ability to penetrate deep into matter non-destructively, neutrons can be used to study samples of devices such as these in great detail, revealing how the coating process relates to implant failure, and ensuring that their material composition is correct. Read more.
Better dental cements
Dental work is famously uncomfortable for patients, can be expensive, and the materials involved often have a short lifespan, meaning the work may have to be repeated. Dental cements, which secure items in place in the mouth, are a particularly important material component of dental work. Neutrons, in combination with X-rays, have been used to investigate variants of these cements, shedding light on their complex structure during the setting process. These insights help develop longer-lasting, and consequently more cost-effective, dental cements. Read more.
Next-generation fuel cells
Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) generate electricity from directly oxidising fuel; advantages include high efficiency, low emissions, and relatively low cost. One of the greatest market entry barriers of SOFCs is their material composition. They lack durability, and have a tendency to generate strains and cause defects. A high operating temperature of around 800 ̊C also impacts their lifespan. Neutrons can be used to follow deformation rates and cracking of SOFCs under extreme operating conditions, paving the way for improving the microstructure and performance. Read more.
Advanced Materials, ILL