“The target vessel is a steel structure containing 50 tons of swirling liquid mercury. During neutron production 60 pulses of protons collide with the target vessel releasing energy roughly equivalent to a stick of dynamite exploding every second. When high-energy protons hit the nucleus of a mercury atom, 20 to 30 neutrons are “spalled” or released. Those neutrons are guided into beam tubes attached to instrument stations. The neutrons coming out of the target must be turned into low-energy neutrons suitable for research—that is, they must be moderated to room temperature or colder.”–Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge National Lab biophysicist John Katsaras chaired one of the sessions earlier this year at the National Science Foundation conference, “Progress and Prospects in Neutron Scattering for the Biological Sciences,” and he has been working in the neutron science field for a quarter century or so—both in the US and Canada. However, unlike the NSF’s May symposium on synthetic cell development—whose video presentations were posted online—the public remains largely in the dark about what transpired at the NSF neutron science meeting last February. Katsaras tells me we can expect to see the NSF neutron scattering and biology report sometime early next year.
Probing material with neutrons—neutron scattering—enables minute and precise measurement of structure and function without damage to even living material. So why all the suspense?