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RDT info logoMagazine on European research Special issue - February 2007   

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Title  Neutrons in the service of science

Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL). The name given to the ILL by its founders pays homage to two pioneering physicists from the last century (1). This European centre of excellence is currently one of the most important sources of neutrons anywhere in the world; thanks to these, researchers in all disciplines can study the structure of matter, whether inert or living.

Cerenkov effect visible in the ILL reactor pool.
Cerenkov effect visible in the ILL reactor pool. The blue light stems from a phenomenon of water polarisation when high-energy electrons pass through it. These electrons are created by gamma rays produced by the fission process in the reactor core.
This important scientific facility was set up in Grenoble in the 1960s, the brainchild of the German physicist Heinz Maier-Leibnitz and his French colleague Louis Néel, who received a Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work on magnetism. Together they wanted to make the incredible atomic- and molecular-research tool afforded by neutron beams available to civilian basic research. This French/German pairing has been strengthened by the equal participation of the United Kingdom since the 1970s (2). Since then, other partnerships with different European countries have provided their support for the institute.

A world leader

As the world leader in neutron science and technology, the ILL is a service institute offering researchers from all over the world the possibility of carrying out research in a wide range of fields – from condensed matter physics to materials science, chemistry, biology and nuclear physics. Each year, around 2 000 researchers, selected by a scientific committee, spend time there on their own projects, and some 800 experiments are carried out. In parallel, the scientific life of the institute itself and support for its users involves more than 300 researchers, engineers and technicians on a permanent basis. The outstanding excellence of the ILL is due to the quality of its neutron source, but also to the large number of beamlines over which these are distributed. Consequently, any one neutron source can be utilised for various experiments calling for very different beams, in terms of both intensity and energy. Apart from detectors and various instruments, sophisticated equipment – designed and developed by in-house” scientists and often unequalled anywhere in the world – is also available to researchers. This consists of state-of-the-art optical components: monochromators; supermirrors which reflect, concentrate and guide neutron beams; cryomagnets used to study samples in the magnetic state required, etc.

Teaching aids

The ILL keeps in touch with the general public via a series of thematic brochures (in English) on technological neutron applications in different fields (matter, life, new materials, the Universe, etc.). Very clearly illustrated, these downloadable brochures constitute interesting learning aids for teachers.

(1) The German Max von Laue (Nobel Prize 1914) was the inventor of the system for measuring the wavelengths of X-rays by diffraction through a crystal, and the Frenchman Paul Langevin was an important researcher in the team of atomic pioneers that surrounded Pierre and Marie Curie. The two of them may be considered as being the “spiritual fathers” of neutron research.

(2) Apart from the three associate countries, scientific partnerships have been formed continually over the last twenty or so years: Spain (1987), Switzerland (1988), Austria (1990), Russia (1996), Italy (1997), Czech Republic (1999), Sweden and Hungary (2005), Belgium and Poland (2006).

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