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Europe needs a unified approach to neutron science

With world-leading facilities nearing the end of their lives, the continent should be planning for 50 years hence, says Colin Carlile.

Much of what is known about a wide range of materials is due to the use of neutron beams. Neutrons complement other techniques for probing matter at a microscopic level, such as X-rays and synchrotron radiation, but unlike them they can only be accessed at central, specialised laboratories. This is a major weakness, since the number of such sources in Europe is falling and will continue to fall.

Scientifically, the field is thriving. It attracts disciplines from geology to biophysics. Europe has the majority of the world’s researchers; it has been the global leader for decades.

Measured by publications, Europe possesses the world’s leading reactor source, the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France, and the world’s leading accelerator source, Isis, near Oxford in the UK. The continent also boasts a range of smaller sources that act as nurseries for researchers and ideas. As the icing on the cake, the European Spallation Source (ESS) being constructed in Lund will provide a next-generation facility.

For researchers, who think in terms of projects lasting three to five years, nothing seems to be changing. They see little reason to raise their voices.

Instrument designers and source builders, in contrast, make plans ranging from 10 to 40 years. On this timescale, there are dark clouds on the horizon.

About two-thirds of Europe’s neutron sources were built more than half a century ago and are destined to close in the near future. Instead of the 12 sources it now has, Europe could be left with two or three.

Facilities are owned nationally, and can be closed unilaterally according to national priorities and available resources. For example, two high-quality, well-instrumented medium-power sources near Paris and Berlin will close prematurely two years from now as a result of administrative decree.

The ILL celebrated its 50th anniversary in January. It goes from strength to strength, yet there is persistent talk of its closure from its joint owners France, the UK and Germany. Little is known about their long-term plans. Discussions about its closure must be objective and transparent and not limited to those three countries.

Research agencies point to new sources under construction, particularly the ESS and the PIK reactor near St Petersburg. Neither, however, can replace the totality of what will be lost.

When the ILL closes it will do so instantaneously. Its resources—around 40 instruments, unique neutron techniques and a pool of specialists—will dissipate.

Meanwhile, the ESS will rise only gradually. After producing its first neutrons sometime around the turn of the decade it will take at least 10 years to reach full capacity. Even this schedule will depend on a reliable cash flow, which is uncertain. The ESS needs proper resources, and expectations have to be realistic. With fewer European sources it will be pressured to be all things to all people.

For its part, the PIK reactor has suffered from a stop-go construction regime since the mid-1980s. It will not, realistically, be able to duplicate the ILL in either quantity or quality.

Beyond these, no new sources—small, medium or large—are planned. There is no mechanism to remedy this apart from the same ad hoc initiative that produced the idea for the ESS three decades ago.

It takes 40 years nowadays to realise a big facility like a neutron source. If planning to replace ESS begins in 2020, a facility might be functional by 2060—only five years before the ESS is scheduled to close. 

In times of plenty, competition can be positive, but lean times demand collaboration. Both the ESS and the ILL need to be protected. And neutron science should learn from high-energy physics and astrophysics, where forward planning is an essential feature of programmes.

At Cern, the Large Hadron Collider is not yet fully operational, yet the lab is planning the Future Circular Collider and the Compact Linear Collider. In astrophysics, the Very Large Telescope has only recently become fully functional, but the European Extremely Large Telescope is already being built and a technical design report for the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope lies ready on the shelf.

These disciplines have two big advantages—the resources to do design studies, and frameworks to take decisions at a European level. Neutron and synchrotron sources need a similar European framework, to allow decisions on building, upgrading and closing sources to be made in a coherent way and in a spirit of collective husbandry.

Colin Carlile is project leader in the department of physics and astronomy at Uppsala University, Sweden. He was director of the Institut Laue Langevin from 2001 to 2006 and director-general of the European Spallation Source from 2007 to 2013.

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This article also appeared in Research Europe