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China Fires up Next-generation Neutron-science Facility

Nov 14, 2017     Email"> PrintText Size

Engineers work on an instrument at the China Spallation Neutron Source in Dongguan. (Jin Liwang/Xinhua via ZUMAPRESS)

China is revving up its next-generation neutron generator and will soon start experiments there. That will lift the country into a select group of nations with facilities that produce intense neutron beams to study the structure of materials.

The China Spallation Neutron Source (CSNS) in Dongguan, a 2.2-billion-yuan (US$331-million) centre, will allow the country’s growing pool of top-notch physicists and material scientists, along with international collaborators, to compete in multiple physics and engineering fields. Its designers also hope that the facility will lead to commercial products and applications ranging from batteries and bridges to aeroplane engines and cancer therapy.

"It is not only a big step forward for Chinese scientists, but also a significant event for the international scientist community," says Wang Xun-Li, a physicist at the City University of Hong Kong who has been involved in planning the facility.

Beam bombardment

Spallation neutron sources produce neutrons by slamming protons onto a metal target — CSNS uses tungsten. They are more cost effective and safer than other methods, which use nuclear reactors to produce neutron beams. As neutrons have no charge, they can penetrate materials more easily than some other probing methods, and they are more senstive to light elements such as hydrogen, making them useful for evaluating candidate materials for fuel cells. Similar facilities exist only in the United Kingdom, United States, Japan and Switzerland, and one is under construction in Sweden.

Fujio Maekawa, a specialist in neutron sources at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex in Tokaimura, says that although the CSNS delivers neutrons at a lower density than other spallation sources — which means that experiments will take longer — a planned upgrade will bring it in line with other facilities. And given their scarcity, “neutron users around the world always welcome new sources”, he says. 

The CSNS will have capacity to host 20 beam lines, supplying as many instruments. Preliminary tests of its first three instruments began on 1 November. “Neutrons arrived at the samples as expected,” says Wang Fangwei, head of the neutron-science division at CSNS. Although debugging might take a couple of years, he expects the instruments to be calibrated and ready for initial experiments by the end of 2017.

Chinese physicists are eager to use the facility to analyse the underlying magnetic properties of materials, an area in which the country has significant experience. Wang Xun-Li says that several planned instruments will give scientists the chance to move to the forefront of fields such as the physics of skyrmions — vortex-like excitations in magnetic materials — and high-temperature superconductivity. “There are a whole bunch of early- to mid-career scientists who are hungry to use the facility for studying magnetism,” says Wang Xun-Li.

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For more information, please refer to Science Magazine.

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