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How are neutrons being used?

Nuclear and particle physics

Neutron research involves two fields: The first one is research on the neutron itself, which allows basic insights into the standard models of physics and the origin of the universe.

The neutron as probe

The other one is using free neutrons as a probe to study matter. Samples of materials, objects or organisms are being "bombarded" by neutrons. The neutron's interaction with the atomic nuclei of the sample tells us a lot about the sample, for example which elements it contains (by absorption and emission), which texture it has (radiography and tomography) and which properties it has on the atomic scale (by scattering).

Wavelenghts and energy spectra of neutrons comply with atom spacings and at the same time with characteristic energy spectra in condensed matter. Neutrons can therefore be used to tell where atoms are how they move. Since neutrons have a spin, which is oriented according to the magnetic field that is present, neutron experiments can show magnetic structures and other properties. Neutron research answers questions that remain open when using complementary methods such as X-rays and electron microscopes.

Standards and innovative mathods

Since the beginnings about 60 years ago, a broad range of methods has developed in neutron research, which are being used to answer very different questions by researchers from a large variety of natural sciences but also cultural heritage, medicine and industry. Standard methods have been established, but the field of possibilites is constantly being extended, so that new sources, instruments and experiments often lead to new insights.

Neutron research in Germany has profited from a unique funding instrument ("Verbundforschung“, since 2018 "ErUM-Pro“) that ivolves universities in the develpoment of new instruments and methods.

History of neutron research in Germany

A strong community of neutron uers is active in Germany, which has its origins in the first research reactor in Garching, the "atom egg" which was run by the Technical Universit München from 1957 to 2000. Its successor, the Forschungs-Neutronenquelle Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II) also plays a central role since 2004. The launch of the Intitute Laue-Langevin (ILL, 1971) in France with German partnership opened up neturon research to a wider community, beacuse the ILL offers neutron experiments to users from universities and other research institutions. Proposals for experiments are being selected by peer-review. Other neutron sources followed this example and offered time for experiments to researchers from Germany and all over the world: Jülich (1962-2006), Berlin (1973-2019) and Garching (FRM II since 2004).

From 2020 on, neutron researchers from all over Germany rely on the only national neutron source in Garching again, while the ILL will stay essential and great hope are being set into the European Spallation Source (ESS) that is being built in Sweden.