Marvellous mirrorball

The Isis 2 target station, which opened this week at Oxford’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, would seem to be one of those pure-science gadgets which tend to rile certain sections of The Engineer’s readership


It has cost £200m, it works something like a disco mirrorball, and it uses some of the more arcane laws of physics to harness the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. The Isis 2 target station, which opened this week at Oxford’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, would seem to be one of those pure-science gadgets which tend to rile certain sections of The Engineer’s readership — endless particles banging into each other, but to what end? It’s very far from that, however, and in this case the end is very useful. Isis 2 is one of the world’s most powerful microscopes, and it’s proving invaluable for engineers.


For the uninitiated, Isis is a pulsed neutron source. At its heart is a lump of tungsten, which is bombarded by high-speed protons from a synchrotron. This causes the emission of neutrons, which are radiated in all directions into a series of bunkers which surround it. These bunkers house various experiments, which use the material-penetrating properties of the neutrons to probe inside different substances and provide images of how their structures change over time, under stress, or during chemical reactions.


Since Isis’s first neutron source opened, in 1984, the facility has become a vital part of many engineering projects. It’s used to view how the nickel alloys of gas turbine blades flex during operation; it’s providing information for the development of hydrogen storage media; it’s helping with the understanding of how spiders spin silk, which in turn will assist the development of super-strong artificial fibres. Some Dutch scientists are, apparently, using it to study cheese. We don’t know why, but we’ve theorised that they might be trying to use it to power time travel; Edam, after all, is made backwards.


Whatever the reason, international research groups are queuing up to use this British resource for highly practical applications, and it’s fostering cross-disciplinary thinking. Not bad for a facility which, like all high-tech, expensive capital investments, was met with cynicism when it was first mooted. The second target will provide longer-wavelength neutrons with a greater control of intensity than Isis 1, and will therefore be able to study lager molecular structures and perform experiments faster, making it even more attractive to visiting researchers.


It’s becoming increasingly clear that much of the interesting and innovative development in engineering is happening where the discipline’s boundaries become fuzzy and merge with the sciences; combining insights from many sources into a practical whole is, after all, the hallmark of engineering. It seems likely that Isis 2 will provide insights which surpass its predecessor: that, along with the collaborations it will foster, makes it money well spent.



Stuart Nathan


Special Projects Editor