The Humble Neutron Is About to Become More Powerful Than Ever

spheres orbiting an atom
Neutrons Might Soon Be The New Science SuperstarOsakaWayne Studios - Getty Images
  • Neutrons have a huge amount of potential to advance science in various fields.

  • To produce the free neutrons needed for scientific experimentation, a new facility is being constructed in Sweden.

  • The facility will be used to investigate questions in such realms as imaging, material science, and investigating antimatter.

Neutrons are a bit of an unsung hero in the quantum world. They’re not charged, they don’t zip around, and we don’t even count them in atomic numbers, even though they make up a significant portion of an atom’s mass.

But they are absolutely critical. Without them, nothing would exist. Neutrons allow protons that would usually repel each other to bunch up in a nucleus and create an atom, which make up pretty much everything else. (Except in hydrogen—one proton doesn’t need a neutron to counteract it.)

Not only are neutrons critical—they’re also useful. So useful, and so widely useful, in fact, that an entire research facility in Sweden called the European Spallation Source (ESS) is currently under construction. Its goal is to see just how much use we can get out of neutrons by creating a beam of the particles that can be used for various scientific endeavors.

The ESS is descriptively named, as the key to using neutrons in a lot of science is a process called spallation. This involves blasting the nuclei of atoms with high-energy particles so that the atom is destabilized and some of the neutrons fly off and become free. Free neutrons are also produced by interactions between cosmic rays and our atmosphere, and by some of the natural radioactivity of the Earth.

So, once the neutrons are free, what kind of scientific endeavors are on the table here?

Well, it depends on what instrument you want to use. When the ESS gets up and running, it will initially be home to 15 neutron-based instruments—many of which have very good names like ODIN, BEER, T-REX, and BIFROST)—each of which will be set up to make use of neutrons in its own way.

One instrument, for example, will be working on imaging—not exactly fancy X-rays, but close enough. Focus a beam of free neutrons in the right way, and you can see right through an object. Not revolutionary on its own, but the nature of neutrons means that you can see different things than you would be able to see with a beam of X-rays. And on top of that, often times, the imaging can be done without damaging the object—critical for examining things like very delicate ancient scrolls.

Another instrument will be used to effectively create real-life timelapses of the effects of free neutrons on objects that can be damaged by repeated exposure to those particles. We know that free neutrons can cause electrical components to deteriorate over time, and being able to test the long-term effects of that exposure in a lab will allow manufacturers learn how to make more neutron-resistant components.

And—potentially most excitingly—a few years after the opening of the ESS, when it’s been enhanced even further, the facility will begin looking for the moment when a neutron transitions from matter to antimatter.

"If you observe something like that,” Valentina Santoro, a particle physicist with the ESS, said in a press release, “you can understand one of the biggest unsolved mysteries: Why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe."

"You just need one neutron that becomes an antineutron, and that is it, you've found this process where matter becomes antimatter," Santoro added.

We’ve got a while before the ESS can begin its work—the facility is scheduled to go online in 2027, and the antimatter experiments aren’t scheduled to start for a while after even that. But once it’s up and running, look out. The neutron is about to show us exactly why it shouldn’t be underestimated.

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