January 27, 2023

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ESS: The world’s largest neutron microscope is under construction

When ready in 2027, the European Spallation Source (ESS) research facility in Lund, Sweden, will be one of the best research infrastructures in the world. Important equipment to monitor the powerful proton beam needed to create neutrons has been built at the University of Oslo.


Helmut Schöber, President of ESS, briefed Ola Borten Moe(th) about the facility in May 2022. Photo: Julia Öberg/ESS

– The ESS project will give Norway and other member states a great new infrastructure that can be used in many different fields, said Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe When he visited the facility last year.

He added that it is impressive to see how Norwegian researchers contribute to the realization of this huge project.

Numerous advantages of neutrons

The ESS will be the most powerful neutron source in the world.

The neutron is the somewhat beloved companion of the proton in the nuclei of atoms. As the name says it has no charge, it is neutral.

The advantages of using neutrons are many. Particles pass easily through most materials. Thus, they can be used to study large objects or materials under extreme conditions such as high temperature and pressure.

With neutrons it is also possible to see hydrogen. This makes the method suitable for studies of biological materials.

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ESS is a European project with 13 countries as members.

The facility consists of a linear proton accelerator, a target in which neutrons are produced and then distributed to various instruments for neutron research.

Research at ESS will be used in medicine, pharmacy, clean energy, information technology, and archeology, to name a few.

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Norway is a member country and contributes 2.5 percent of the budget.

It produces neutrons by releasing protons at the metal

However, neutrons are not on the shelves, and must be made on site. In the ESS, this would be done by bombarding metallic tungsten with protons. When protons collide with the atomic nucleus of tungsten, high-energy neutrons explode. This process is called epithelialization and it gave the plant its name.

When a proton beam gets close to a target, it has a very high energy. If it is too severe or misdirected, it can seriously damage the device.

– It is important that the package is as it should be, otherwise the entire facility must be stopped, says physics professor Eric Adly.

He and his colleagues at UiO have been commissioned by ESS to develop technology for monitoring the powerful proton beam, and will present several beam imaging systems.

At the core of the machine, this task is not entirely simple.


Jonas Skara Ringnes in the instrument shop at UiO with parts for the system that will monitor the proton beam at the ESS.
Jonas Skara Ringnes in the instrument shop at UiO with parts for the system that will monitor the proton beam at the ESS. Photo: Hilde Lynnebakken/UiO

Very high radiation for cameras

Within the target area itself, there is very high neutron radiation, which is why the techniques that can be used to take pictures are limited, says Adly.

The camera equipment placed here would simply be destroyed by radiation.

The researchers solved this by smearing an area of ​​the target with a substance that emits light when charged particles pass through it.

With the help of special mirrors that can withstand radiation, the light is reflected to a place more than ten meters away where it is safe to place the camera.

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UiO equipment will monitor the proton beam

UiO will also provide equipment to monitor the proton beam while the facility is in operation. The protons will come from the most powerful linear proton accelerator ever built.


Harvard Girsdal at UiO's Electronics Laboratory with parts of the monitoring system that have now been handed over to the ESS.
Harvard Girsdal at UiO’s Electronics Laboratory with parts of the monitoring system that have now been handed over to the ESS. Photo: Hilde Lynnebakken/UiO

– Adly says getting the beam in good enough condition is a big task. He believes it could take several months or possibly years before it is ready to be used to produce neutrons.

The systems are designed and built here at Blindern, with technicians and engineers in the instrumentation lab and electronics lab, says Adly.

The first UiO systems, the ones that will be used while the ESS is running, were delivered this summer.

The ESS will start operating during 2024, Adly estimates. The entire facility is scheduled to be completed in 2027.

Important for Norwegian batteries investment

– I was in Lund 22 years ago, when Norwegian, Swedish and Danish researchers decided to try to build an ESS in the Nordic countries, says Helmer Welfog, professor of chemistry at UiO.

Chemists use neutron facilities extensively to study materials. Of particular interest to Norwegian researchers are biological materials and functional materials for batteries, hydrogen storage, and magnetrons.

– Although in Norway we are a little behind our neighbors, there are now several giant battery factories here too, says Fjellvåg.


People talking together inside the factory hall.
Behind the blue blocks, neutrons will be produced and ejected to the experiments that will be built here in the hall. Photo: Hilde Lynnebakken/UiO

With ESS, researchers will be able to study the materials of batteries during charging and use. ESS is also described as a leading infrastructure for studies of proteins and enzymes.

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The article was first published on Titan.uio.no