27 February 2007

Second Neutron Beam Instrument Online as OPAL Returns to Full Power

Following the OPAL reactor’s successful return to full power, ANSTO’s* second state-of-the-art neutron beam instrument – Wombat – went on-line for the first time. In honour of the reactor, scientists selected an opal gem as a test material for neutrons to penetrate and determine its atomic structure.

Costing $5 million to build and being totally unique, the High Intensity Powder Diffractometer has the power to detect a million neutrons a second and to produce data on the structure of materials in milliseconds.

“The instrument’s called Wombat because it’s the only one in the world with this kind of grunt,” said Dr Shane Kennedy, Head of ANSTO’s Neutron Beam Instrument Project.

“Australia is exceptionally lucky to have Wombat, as it means we can now drive research to help us develop new materials as well as better understand materials production processes, how the earth is structured and what materials do in extreme environments.

“Wombat will let us run in-situ experiments in real time,” explained Dr. Kennedy. “For example, if you want to know at the atomic level how a metal will respond if rapidly heated to 900 degrees C, put in an electric field or chilled to hundreds of degrees below zero, Wombat will show you.

“This type of information is crucial for refining manufacturing processes or knowing how to better extract minerals from rock, because we can see what is happening atomically during the production process.

“The refining of some manufacturing processes tends to be a little hit or miss, as what happens to materials at the atomic level during manufacturing has not been accurately measured before. In Australia, this is about to change, thanks to this technology,” said Dr. Kennedy.

One of those carrying out the test was Dr. Andrew Studer, the instrument scientist responsible for bringing the instrument on line. Dr. Studer said they tested the opal gemstone today because it seemed fitting as a first test using the OPAL reactor’s neutrons, but explained that over the next couple of weeks other materials would be tested on Wombat.

“For example, we intend to test a material thought to be prolific in the earth’s mantle, which surrounds the core,” said Dr. Studer. “It’s a tiny sample, created at the same temperatures and pressures that exist hundreds of kilometres beneath our feet.”

Wombat will also play a major role in the search for a material that can successfully hold significant quantities of hydrogen, which in turn could be used to provide clean power.

“For example, batteries in laptops use hydrogen-absorbing metal, known as a hydride, for power,” said Dr. Studer. “These batteries are pretty heavy and don’t last long between recharges, so scientists want to develop a lighter material that can also hold more energy and last a long time,” said Dr. Studer. “We can play a major role in developing such a material. It’s very exciting.”

* ANSTO is the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the country’s national nuclear research and development organisation and the centre of Australian nuclear expertise – over 70 per cent of all radioisotopes used in Australian nuclear medicine are made in ANSTO’s reactor.


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