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Case Studies


Neutron Beam and Ion Beam Analysis techniques have many applications in everyday life. From the analysis of air contaminants on Earth to the detection of water on Mars, from the extraction of gold from seawater to the development of coated nanoparticles to cure cancer, not to mention the production of more efficient rechargeable batteries or solving cold cases like the possible murder of the Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe: in every of these applications and more, analysis techniques provided by research reactors and ion beam accelerators could help.

These pages unveil a number of representative examples of these practical applications. To navigate amongst them, click on the title, and access the corresponding pdf files. These documents were prepared by Dr Nuno P. Barradas, from the Centre for Nuclear Sciences and Technologies (C2TN), Instituto Superior Técnico, Portugal, and Prof. Chris Jeynes, from the Ion Beam Centre of the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK.

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Neutron Case Studies

Infography: Interaction of slow neutrons with matter

This infography shows the main types of interactions that slow neutrons have with matter, and how they can be used: neutron scattering and neutron absorption lead to a range of nuclear analytical techniques that provide unique information on many problems that affect people and society.

Infography: The world seen with neutrons

Neutrons can probe the world at different scales: from atomic resolution holography, to air quality studies spanning the entire planet, neutrons also reveal the nanoworld where nanoparticles are used in medicine and the microworld where forensics or technological questions are solved.

Depth profiling Lithium-ion batteries with neutrons

Rechargeable Li-ion batteries are part of everyday life. Real-time in-situ quantification of the changing lithium distribution in the batteries during charging and discharging is extremely useful information.

Historical forensics using hair analysis - Was Tycho Brahe murdered

Nuclear analytical techniques played a pivotal role in helping to solve two high-profile historical forensics "cold cases", including the death of astronomer Tycho Brahe. Did he die from uraemia, from bladder burst, or, as traces of poisonous mercury in his hair would suggest, was he murdered? Radiochemical Neutron Activation Analysis was one key to solve the mystery.

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells produce electrical energy directly from hydrogen, with, as only byproduct, water. Neutron imaging is used to perform in situ non-destructive analysis on an operating PEM fuel cell.

Gold nanoparticles are of great interest for medical applications, as organic carriers such as drug can be fixed on them, and transported via the blood to body parts to be cured. And to develop these organic-inorganic system, techniques like Small Angle X-Ray Scattering and .Small Angle Neutron Scattering are used.

Glazed tiles are used in many parts of the world to protect building facades, or as decorative art. As the centuries go by, the tiles degrade and action needs to be taken for their conservation and preservation for future generations. Usually, ancient are treated by immersion in a transparent thermoplastic resin. Is the treatment working ? One way to verify that is Neutron Tomography.

Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) and Particle Induced X-ray Emission (PIXE) are very often used in air quality studies, due to their high sensitivity to metals and many other elements of interest.

Artificially structured magnetic thin films or multilayers in the nanometer range play a vital role in computer memory applications. These materials could be used to detect very small magnetic fields, which is essential to read data in hard disk drives and other devices. But their properties depend critically on each layer's magnetization state, as well as on interfacial roughness and structure. Polarized neutron reflectometry (PNR) is the technique of choice to study the magnetization of individual nanolayers in multilayered systems.

Atomic resolution neutron holography

Optical holography uses laser light,  to produce three dimensional images of objects. Holography with electrons and X-rays were able to produce images at the atomic scale, where individual atoms are observed, limited to the surface though. Thermal neutrons do not have these drawbacks, and a series of challenges are being solved to make it work in practice.

Harvesting metals from water

Seawater contains enough gold to supply worldwide gold demand for millions of years, if one could extract it from the sea, in an economically viable way. Manganese oxide-based nanostructured materials are good candidate for that, and inelastic neutron scattering plays a crucial role in developing these systems.

Fingerprinting Food: Using Neutron Activation Analysis

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world. It is also one of the most counterfeited and mislabeled food exports from the developing world. NAA could be used to identify Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee from non-Blue Mountain coffee and from international brands.


 Ion Beam Analysis Case Studies

Infography: The world seen with ion beams

Ion beams with MeV energies can probe the world at different scales to reveal a wealth of information: from the nano-structure of nanocrystalline materials to studies of air pollution, ion beams have been used in Mars, in museums, and can reveal the structure of proteins or the minerals present in rocks.

Ion beam analysis (IBA) methods have been crucial in understanding the mixing and demixing behaviours of polymers.  Using this understanding, many novel and highly useful types of devices and materials can be made.  Plastic electronics is now a huge market, as also is plastic packaging and coating.  We rely on plastic coatings for durability under very testing conditions, and it is the polymer chemists who have to deliver this performance.

This wonderful picture is obtained by X-ray crystallography (XRX) on the European Synchrotron Research Facility in Grenoble,  beamline ID-29.  It is an interesting protein of significance in cancer studies,  and the Zn atoms are crucially important to the protein.  But XRX only specifies the existence and location of metal ions,  it is the complementary IBA that identifies and quantifies them.

Air pollution from aerosols immediately and directly affects human health,  and also impacts the earth system in several ways including the modification of the earth's radiative balance, and its influence on biogeochemical cycles.  These profoundly affect global warming with correlated huge changes in the biosphere.  IBA has contributed greatly to our understanding.

Where has all the water gone?  The surface of Mars looks (to the geologists) as though it was previously a very wet place, and many other types of analysis appear to confirm this;  but Mars now is clearly very dry.  What we will address in this Case Study is how elemental analysis using nuclear methods can give near-100% mass closure for the composition of the rocks tested,  that is,  including the water contained in hydrated minerals.

It turns out that we can demonstrate that indeed organic molecules can survive the high temperatures generated by massive meteor impact events.  And Ion Beam Analysis started this story off!

The “silicides” shown in the picture are essential to modern integrated circuits.  But their materials science is complicated,  and the picture shows a two-hour RBS experiment effectively sorting out all the complications!  This is only one example of real-time measurements:  these can be extraordinarily efficient,  readily giving details of processes that are hard (or impossible) to obtain conventionally.

Nanofluidics technology is a wonderful research enabler,  and large scale production of nanofluidic devices is central to the burgeoning field of "lab-on-a-chip",  which are devices with many important applications allowing chemistry with miniscule quantities of reagents.  This Case Study explores the use of focussed ion beams to prototype such new devices.

The French Ministry of Culture has its own ion beam accelerator, located underneath the Louvre Museum in Paris, and can image its treasures to find out what the thin surface layers (paint or gilding) are made of.

Little trapped bubbles (“inclusions”) of liquids tell the geologists lots and lots about which mineral deposits are where.  Ion beam analysis provides the scientists with a very powerful tool to analyse the the inclusions without destroying their rocks.


Quality Assurance in an Ion Beam Laboratory

Silicon chips are inside every computer:  we take them for granted, but the technology is very complicated:  it is amazing that it works at all!  An essential part of the fabrication process is "ion implantation",  and it is critical that this is done accurately.  Quality Assurance (QA) is of great importance in the semiconductor industry. Researchers have supported the development of new processes by establishing highly reliable implantation through careful QA,  underpinned by Rutherford backscattering spectrometry (RBS) of an unprecedented accuracy. This Case Study shows how such high quality RBS is done, and what use it might have:  in particular it is of great interest to metrologists,  and to anyone else who needs reference materials,  since it is a new "primary reference method".




The comments and suggestions of Anne Co (Ohio State university, USA), Chris Ryan (CSIRO, Australia), Claire Pacheco (AGLAE/Louvre, France), David Cohen (ANSTO, Australia), Elspeth Garman (University of Oxford, UK), Geoff Grime (University of Surrey, UK), Gyula Török (Budapest Neutron Centre, Hungary), Hideki Koyanaka (Forward Science Laboratory Ltd, Japan), Iain Campbell (University of Guelph, Canada), Isabel Prudêncio (C2TN/IST, Portugal), Jan Kučera (The Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic), Marta Almeida (C2TN/IST, Portugal), Peter Bode (TU Delft, The Netherlands), Richard Thompson (Durham University, UK), Surendra Singh (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, India) are acknowledged. Design of infographies by Anja Wartig Pessoa Barradas.