Material evidence

A world-leading £1bn European neutron facility could be built in the north of England, following a pledge of support from the government.

A world-leading £1bn European neutron facility could be built in the north of England, following a pledge of support from the government.

The European Spallation Source (ESS), a type of matterscope, will allow researchers in fundamental and applied science to see individual atoms moving within materials, revealing stresses deep within the wheel of a train or section of track, or the wing of an aircraft made from advanced composite materials.

It could also be used for biomedical research, the development of tiny computer circuits and to map the behaviour of hydrogen atoms within next-generation fuel systems and engines, leading to improved vehicle designs.

The device will be 10 times more powerful than facilities under construction in Japan and the US, making the UK the world leader in related research.

Rather than using light to look at structures, matterscopes bounce neutrons off them to create a map. The neutrons are created by using powerful magnets to propel protons down a long concrete tunnel at nearly the speed of light. At the tunnel’s end they hit a metal object that chips off neutrons. These are then focused into a beam.

‘About 10 years ago people began to realise that neutron scatter science underpinned all science to do with matter,’ said Prof Bob Cywinski, experimental physics researcher at Leeds University. ‘They also realised that on a global scale all existing facilities were coming to the end of their lifespan.’

While the Americans and Japanese started work on new facilities in the late 1990s, based on European designs, the EU has yet to make a move owing to a lack of consensus between member countries. Though Germany at first took a lead in bidding to host the facility, in February this year it decided to step back, leaving the field open for the UK to take over.

UK science minister Lord Sainsbury recently met a delegation from the White Rose University Consortium, an organisation formed by staff from Leeds, Sheffield and York universities. They proposed building the matterscope’s 0.62-mile concrete tunnel and laboratories at a disused air base near Selby in North Yorkshire, most of which would be underground.

Lord Sainsbury confirmed that the government was committed to ensuring that the UK remained world leader in the provision of neutron facilities and said that the country would be proactive in taking the case for building a next-generation facility here. The decision means that the scientific community will now be canvassed on the need for the ESS, resulting in an assessment of the situation.

If support is sufficient, the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC), the government agency responsible for large-scale scientific facilities, will put a case seeking funding for the project to the UK Comprehensive Spending Review expected in 2006.

‘The government is keen that the UK continues to be at the forefront of neutron research and facilities,’ Lord Sainsbury said. ‘The UK intends to take a lead in determining what future user requirements might be, and hopes to gain consensus among the science communities of European partners over the next two years or so. The CCLRC is currently assessing the options for a future European neutron source, which includes ESS and other options.’

If a number of European countries agree that a neutron source is needed and the funding is available the UK proposal will compete against bids from other European countries.

But Cywinski warned that any loss of momentum for the bid could be harmful to UK research. ‘The facility will take around 10 years to build,’ he said. ‘Any delay may mean it would not be up and running until 2020.’

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