There has never been a better time for the materials community to get involved and explore the possibilities of synchrotrons and neutron sources

Over the last 20 years, the growth of large-scale research facilities has been prodigious. Just in the last couple of years, construction has begun on new synchrotrons in Australia, China, France, Spain, the Middle East, and the UK. New spallation neutron sources are under construction in Japan and the USA. Various national and regional roadmaps show that there is no shortage of potential projects lining up for support over the next 20 years.

Why this sudden plethora of ideas and where are they being driven from? The answer is that, in many cases, it is the diverse user base in addition to machine builders who are pushing the frontiers of science forward around such cutting-edge equipment. This is no less true for materials science and engineering.

Recent examples of materials research using large-scale facilities – in fields as diverse as archaeology, the detection of stresses in aircraft components, in situ measurement of bone density, and the investigation of viral infections in living cells – show how the breadth of science research continues to expand. Many of these new applications relate to real-time investigations in complex environments.

This growth has been made possible by the incessant march of technology. This has manifested itself not just in the increased speed, power, and brightness of the accelerators that form the basis of many of the facilities, but also in instrumentation technology. Advances in the technology of radiation detection, data acquisition, and sample manipulation have all contributed.

The speed of data collection is becoming awesome. Dependent on the facility, readings can currently be taken at greater than microsecond resolution. With new, proposed facilities approaching femtosecond resolution, it will be possible to follow individual atomic movements during reactions. Linked with time resolution is the sheer amount of data produced, which has to be stored, curated, and archived so that it is open to data mining in the future. This is a major challenge that is now receiving international attention.

Gone are the days when users had to understand how facilities worked and be capable of doing all the data analysis themselves. While it is certainly necessary to have people who push the technologies to the limit, most users work alongside dedicated experts who are involved as the project is being planned, advise on which instruments to use, help analyze the raw data, and offer complementary computer simulations to aid interpretation.

The growth in large-scale research facilities has been prodigious


In fact, an increasing number of facilities are introducing a service mode where a user sends in a sample and the experiment is run remotely or by experts at the facility. Control of the experiment can be undertaken from one's own office and, if there are several distributed researchers, the access grid allows communication between individuals as they watch the results appear and who, together, can take real-time decisions on settings and the future of the experiment. Remote handling is very useful for some industrial users, such as pharmaceutical companies testing the design of their drugs, aircraft manufacturers checking the strains and stresses in components especially where novel joining techniques are involved, and chemical firms analyzing the extrusion of polymers under different temperatures and pressures. A chocolate manufacturer has even been able to enhance the texture of its chocolate by analyzing and understanding its six crystalline structures.

As sources become increasingly more powerful, the opportunities for materials research will move toward the study of system dynamics. Scientists will be able to ‘see’ corrosion, battery decay, how hydrogen is stored and released, or protein-substrate interactions, among many others.

My own organization, the UK Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, is coming to the end of a consultation process that will result in recommendations for how the UK should plan for future provision of neutron sources for scientists from a wide range of backgrounds. Many scientists in the UK and elsewhere are not aware of the potential offered by access to the machines and the ancillary resources for specimen preparation, sample environment, etc. One of the major challenges of this exercise has been marketing. How do we reach out to scientists who don't currently use large-scale facilities to carry out their research? It is now time that the materials community took the initiative. Whatever system you wish to look at, whether it is molten, highly toxic, involves very high or very low temperatures, or includes interfaces between material and biological systems, there will be existing experience of looking at all these cases and many more.

So do not be afraid to engage and check out the potential. Whether you want to make real-time studies of catalytic processes at the atomic scale, or discover just what it is that makes the artificial smart polymers you have created behave like muscles, it is worth finding out if large-scale facilities can help. There has never been a better time for the materials community to get involved and set the agenda for the future.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)71343-2