“Neutrons for Society”—A Chat with Sweden’s Tommy Nylander

Tommy Nylander - 2

“I’d like to say that ESS [the European Spallation Source] is nothing magical, strange or science fiction.  It is a powerful tool that people are welcome to use.  That is said not only in the spirit of openness but to communicate that we are making ESS for the benefit of society.  These are ‘neutrons for society.’”—Tommy Nylander 

Lund University physical chemist Tommy Nylander likes to thoroughly punctuate his personal communications with exclamation points!  That’s just the way he sees life!  And so neutron scattering science in Sweden could not have a better ambassador!  

European Spallation Source (ESS) at Lund University, Sweden

“Neutrons for society” is what Nylander is promoting.  Neutrons for peace, prosperity, and for big leaps in scientific research with unparalleled accuracy possible for observation—including for the biological sciences.  Neutrons can pinpoint where hydrogens are within a protein, for example, as well as reveal the molecular dynamics of cells.  

And ESS at Lund University (construction now 48% complete) is slated to become the world’s most powerful facility for neutron science—eventually 5MW—with its neutrons generated via spallation. No nuclear reactor involved.  ESS is also mercury free.

Nylander has worked in neutron science for over a quarter century. In recent years he’s been using neutron scattering to look at biological surfaces—like in the interaction of proteins and lipids.  

He’s also researching the interaction of RNA and lipid membranes and has been a trailblazer in investigating the surface properties of DNA.  Nylander in our conversation that follows tells me he thinks advances in neutron scattering technology will lead to an understanding of the DNA “wrapping process.”

Last year the Swedish Chemical Society awarded Tommy Nylander its Norblad-Ekstrand medal for “outstanding scientific research” in physical chemistry.  Richard Campbell of France’s Institut Laue-Langevin expressed the following regarding Nylander being honored:

“There could not be a more deserved recipient of the Norblad-Ekstrand medal than Tommy Nylander!  First and foremost, his research towards the understanding of interfacial interactions of lipid phases and a broad range of amphiphilic systems in soft matter and biology is highly distinguished. His work relies on a range of experimental techniques and supporting computational calculations, but in particular he is a strong enthusiast of neutron science, not only at the ISIS pulsed source in the UK and the ILL in France, where he has acquired a large amount of his scientific data, but also many other facilities worldwide.  Furthermore, his exceptional dedication needs to be mentioned as clearly he offers more support than most academics to further the careers and aspirations of the young scientists who have the fortune to work with him.”

With his warm, open style of dialogue, Tommy Nylander has been successful not only in educating the public about the virtues of ESS but also in reassuring the public that ESS—a pan-European project—is environmentally friendly. 

Indeed, earlier this year representatives from all member countries of the UN Security Council visited  ESS to assess the facility, apparently giving their nod of approval as well.

ESS uses a rotating helium-cooled tungsten target wheel for its neutron source rather than the liquid mercury target used at facilities in the US and Japan.  Per the ESS literature

“The spallation process takes place when the accelerated proton beam hits the Tungsten bricks of the 11-tonne target wheel.  At ESS, this will produce unprecedented neutron brightness for scientific experiments across multiple disciplines.”

Tommy Nylander is a professor of physical chemistry at Lund University with 70% of his focus on research, particularly at NanoLund—the university’s nanoscience lab. He is currently PI (principal investigator) on a half dozen projects funded by the Swedish government and European Commission.

Nylander is a member of the editorial boards of Chemistry and Physics of Lipids and Biophysical Journal.  He serves as chairman of the Review Panel for Biology at MLZ (Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Zentrum) neutron research center in Germany.  Nylander was main organizer of the European Conference on Neutron Scattering in Lund (2007), among many other distinctions.

Tommy Nylander’s PhD is in chemical engineering/biophysical technology from Lund University and his MSc in chemical engineering/food technology also from Lund.  He was a postdoctoral research fellow at Australian National University.

My recent conversation with Tommy Nylander follows.

Suzan Mazur: Congratulations on being awarded the Norblad-Ekstrand medal by the Swedish Chemical Society.  You’ve been working in neutron science for a quarter century in various countries, I understand, and you are also at the cutting edge of investigations on biological interface, protein-lipid interactions, as well as the surface properties of DNA. Can you say a bit more about your current research?

Tommy Nylander:  I’m very interested in different structures that can occur in living cells.  In particular, structures generated by lipids, or fats, if you want.  Previously lipids were considered as only a building block with no or very minute function.  Merely a support.

Suzan Mazur:  Cell membranes are made of lipids.

Tommy Nylander: Yes. Today it’s realized that lipids can perform various functions that can be very important for cell maintenance and various cellular processes.  I’d like to know more about how  biomolecules interact with cell membranes, which are curved, and with lipids that form at this curved membrane. 

There has been increased attention to this aspect of biological interface. Neutrons are especially useful for the study of lipids and other biomolecules.  You can play a bit of a trick with something called selective deuteration, since ordinary water and heavy water have very different scattering properties. 

When we do neutron scattering, this is what enables us to look at one part of a molecule at a time.  We then mix H2O and deuterium oxide or D2O — ordinary water and heavy water to match out different parts of structure.  That is really the power of neutrons. 

Another important aspect of neutrons is that they are not so harmful.  Neutrons can pass through matter more easily than X-rays and they don’t destroy cells. 

You know when you go for an X-ray, the doctor goes out of the room and you’re left alone with that buzzing machine.  That’s because X-rays are, I wouldn’t exactly say harmful, but they are more intense. 

Suzan Mazur:  You’re also looking at the surface properties of DNA.  Can you say a bit about that?

Tommy Nylander: Yes. DNA contains the information code for transcription, for making protein and passing information into and out of cells.  It is also important in cell division.  DNA is a long double-helix strand, a meter or so long in a cell.  To make this long strand, this long molecule fit into the cell, DNA wraps with a protein called histone.  We think it’s important to understand how this wrapping process occurs.  One can regard this wrapping process as a mutational process.

Suzan Mazur:  And neutron scattering can help us understand how this wrapping process happens?

Tommy Nylander:  Yes. Sometimes DNA becomes damaged, i.e., the code goes wrong.  There’s an idea that if you want to repair DNA inside the cell, you can introduce healthy DNA to the cell using a small torpedo-like entity. It’s somewhat futuristic, but can be done to an extent now.  Neutrons offer new possibilities to help us look at this phenomenon.

Suzan Mazur:  Thank you.  Regarding the growing interest in neutron science in Europe, is the League of Advanced Neutron Sources (LENS) now replacing the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) or do these two organizations remain separate?  There are roughly a dozen European countries in each of these organizations.

Tommy Nylander:  These consortia are a way for different countries to pool their resources, not only money but also in terms of competence and science.

Suzan Mazur: In-kind contributions.

Tommy Nylander: In-kind contributions but also general knowledge as well as in preparing the European Spallation Source (ESS) user base.

Suzan Mazur: Is LENS replacing ERIC or will they remain two separate consortia?

Tommy Nylander:  ESS is within the concept of ERIC, within the legal framework of ERIC, which is a non-profit organization.  LENS is more of a networking-type organization.  

Suzan Mazur: Sweden and Denmark took the lead in building ESS? Is that right?

Tommy Nylander:  Sweden and Denmark took the lead to build ESS.  Denmark and Sweden each had a neutron research facility previously. Denmark’s facility was quite famous—a reactor in Risø, near Roskilde   Sweden had one at Studsvik, south of Stockholm.

The one in Denmark was very important for building up the research community and it had quite some impact.  It was initiated by Niels Bohr, one of the principal physicists in Denmark—as you well know, a great scientist.  The facility was built in a beautiful area just outside Roskilde.  I did an experiment there once.  The facility was nice, but it was a small neutron source and was closed for safety reasons.  The reactor had passed its lifetime.

The Danes and Swedes came together to plan a new research facility.  Since land around greater Copenhagen is expensive, some visionaries in Lund suggested constructing the facility here where it would be cheaper to build.  

Suzan Mazur: What is the ESS operational target date and are we talking about a 2MW beam power or 5MW beam power?

Tommy Nylander:  First there will be 2MW in 2023 and then it will be ramped up.

Suzan Mazur: My understanding is there are six main benefits to using neutron scattering:  (1) probing structure and function in living cells, (2) high penetration, (3) precision, (4) sensitivity and selectivity, (5) probing for magnetism, (6)  probing fundamental properties. Is that right?  Did I leave anything out?

Tommy Nylander:  That is quite a good summary of what you can do. 

Suzan Mazur:  Imaging living organism-level complexity will be possible with ESS.  Is this what’s called neutron tomography?

Tommy Nylander: Neutron tomography is an imaging technique and it is a rapidly evolving technology.  With new detectors, we now have the resolution to look at living cells. This is quite an exciting development.  And compared to X-ray, neutron scattering is still a relatively new technique. 

Suzan Mazur: Will ESS be able to “elucidate DNA’s own evolution”?

Tommy Nylander: Even with large and fancy equipment like this for addressing complex issues you need other techniques.  Even with the power of neutrons, you need other types of measurement.  But the reason why neutron scattering has become a good tool for life science is that scientists have been developing an environment in which they can grow living cells using neutron beams. 

Neutron science started, was initially run by physicists, mostly nuclear physicists.  Now you see biologists and researchers within medicine taking an interest in neutron scattering with measurement methods becoming increasingly important.  The user communities are developing rapidly.

Suzan Mazur: Can you say briefly what the essential principle of neutron scattering is?  How it works.

Tommy Nylander:  Neutron scattering.  One can regard neutrons as any kind of radiation like X-rays, the same sort of physics is valid.  The only difference between neutrons and X-rays and photons is that neutron scattering is based on a particle that is neutral, i.e., the neutron can penetrate deep into matter without being destructive. The reason also for neutrons being very good for life science is that water scatters neutrons very well. 

You know when you go to the doctor and have an X-ray of your soft tissue—a contrast solution is used that is sensitive to X-rays.  This solution is generally based on a heavy metal complex. But water scatters neutrons very well, so you can look at water and at structure without the high contrast solution required for X-rays. 

There is a famous picture of an operating car engine done with neutron tomography that was published by BMW and recorded in Munich. You can see through the engine parts, the dark part, the non-transparent part that stands out is the water vapor.  So neutrons scatter different things than X-rays. 

In some cases X-ray is better because it is more intense and can detect different things than neutrons can.  But neutrons are particularly good because you can not only look at the location and structure of water better, but you can also look at the dynamics of water in living systems. 

Suzan Mazur:  ESS will have to its benefit the brightness factor as well.

Tommy Nylander:  Yes.  Of course, neutrons are very scarce.  There are very few of them. So you need to have a strong source, a highly optimized source.  As mentioned earlier, most of the facilities previously developed were designed from a physicist’s point of view to optimize and measure certain things.  But ESS is different because the technology is also inspired by the needs of a whole new user community working in life science and soft matter. From its inception, ESS was adapted for life science with the development of instruments, etc.

Suzan Mazur: There was a 2013 meeting of origins of life/synthetic cell development scientists at CERN, a meeting that I also attended. Will scientists at ESS be investigating origins of life/synthetic cell development?

Tommy Nylander:  I’m sure there will be scientists investigating this, but there will also be a lot of other research, maybe not as spectacular, but clearly things that will benefit our daily life. 

Suzan Mazur:  Regarding benefitting our daily life—I’ve read that some of the projected uses are for dentistry and looking at bone structure.

Tommy Nylander:  This is very good.  Today we don’t fully understand how bone mineralization happens on the molecular level. It’s believed the mineralization process not only involves the mineral itself—calcium phosphate—but different proteins. Neutron scattering can be a very powerful tool in this investigation.   

Suzan Mazur:  Neutron science has been used to investigate viruses for a number of years. What will ESS enable us to see that previous neutron science could not?

Tommy Nylander:  It’s true, the structure of viruses is to some extent known.  But a brighter source will enable us to better understand structure as well as the dynamic process, the mechanism of action of the virus. 

Suzan Mazur: On the cultural front–ESS will also be used to examine ancient artifacts in new ways.  Will this tool somehow enable a better read of fragmentary DNA and bone structure from say a 10,000-year-old skeleton

Tommy Nylander:  There are some people working on this issue with various techniques and I think the knowledge you gain from neutron experiments might help.  The challenges are large though.  You can recover some of the fragments in the DNA.  But to encode the complete sequence of DNA you’d need a lot of different techniques, some computer modeling, etc. 

ESS may help us to unravel the mysteries as to why the dinosaurs died out and things like that.  Some prominent American researchers investigating this are using multiple techniques—not only neutron scattering but DNA sequencing. 

Suzan Mazur:  Thank you. Has there been any noticeable opposition to the construction of the world’s most powerful spallation source at Lund University?  Are there hazards?

Tommy Nylander:  There was some resistance in the beginning.  I happened to be at some of the very first meetings when the ESS project was discussed with environmentalists and local politicians.  Colin Carlile—the first director of ESS—had a very good approach to this.  He was very open and welcomed discussion.

I remember at one of these early meetings where there was a very open dialogue—an environmentalist, a very prominent young woman who opposed ESS, voiced her skepticism.  The main concern of environmentalists at the beginning was that ESS would have a mercury target like the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US.

Suzan Mazur: ESS will use a rotating, gas-cooled tungsten target in its neutron production unlike the liquid-mercury target both Oak Ridge and the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex use.  Correct?

Tommy Nylander:  Yes.  The main environmental concern in Sweden was the large amount of mercury.  This prominent environmentalist I just mentioned was successful in forcing engineers and decisionmakers to come up with a different construction.  One that did not contain mercury.  A tungsten wheel instead, which causes much less waste material and you don’t have to pump mercury.

So that was a result of the discussion with the environmentalist.  And I remember another meeting about ESS, where I was on a panel talking about my science with other panelists painting a very dark picture of nuclear waste.  It was quite a horrible experience.

I turned to a young woman on the panel, an environmentalist, and I said: “Well I guess no one is interested in my science talk then.”

 And she looked at me and said:  “I am very interested.” 

So that was the importance of public openness from the start.

Suzan Mazur:  Other panelists were painting a very dark picture of nuclear waste.  What was the nuclear issue?

Tommy Nylander:  ESS is an accelerator.  It accelerates protons.  There is a nuclear aspect because it’s a spallation.  Neutrons come from the center of the atom so in that respect it’s a nuclear process.  It’s not like in a nuclear reactor though where there’s a chain reaction that you initiate which then generates a lot of energy.  With ESS, when you shut off the proton accelerator that hits the target, the thing stops.  To stop a nuclear reaction in a reactor, you have to put in rods that cool down the neutrons.  So there’s a fundamental difference. 

Suzan Mazur: Europe has been hugely training the next generation of neutron scattering scientists.  There in Sweden, you have SwedNess, a graduate school for neutron scattering operated by six universities.  You also have the Nordic Neutron Science Programme. In April of this year, a delegation from the UN Security Council visited ESS to have a look-see. Where’s it all heading?

Tommy Nylander:  ESS was not only envisioned as a neutron facility.  It also contributes to society’s excitement about science.

If you look at all these projects that have been created. Take ILL, for instance, Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France.  It was conceived as a peace project.  It was created after the war to bring Germans, French and British people together.  I think ESS can be similarly regarded as a way to bring people together, to help maintain peace and prosperity in Europe and beyond.

Suzan Mazur:  ESS has been very transparent in communicating with the public the nature of the project and providing project updates.  It’s interesting that America’s National Science Foundation held a meeting in February of this year on neutron scattering and biology. Biophysicist John Katsaras—a senior scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory—who participated in that NSF meeting, told me in a recent interview that America is planning “a second target station that will be competitive to ESS.” However, there is so far no public access to information from that NSF meeting, whereas NSF held a meeting in May on synthetic cell development with videos posted on the Internet.  I understand a report on the NSF neutron scattering meeting may be coming out early next year.  But when it comes to science, we just don’t seem to have the same healthy transparency here in the US as you have there in Sweden.

Tommy Nylander:  I know John very well and he is a good friend of mine.  The thing is that, at least in our country, most people in government understand that they are entrusted with public money to create something good and beneficial for the society.  And many scientific researchers, although not all, feel that they are public servants and want to share their work with the people of Sweden because we are funded by them.  When you meet people in the street and mention ESS, there is real interest and enthusiastic support. This is because it has been a very open process.

Suzan Mazur:  Your commitment to your work and to the public’s perception of your work is inspiring.  Do you have time for activities outside your work?  Hobbies?

Tommy Nylander:  I am an avid gardener and I do horseback riding. I love cooking also.  We have a young son.  So I’m really enjoying life.

Suzan Mazur:  Is there a point you’d like to make that I may have missed?

Tommy Nylander:  I’d like to say that ESS is nothing magical, strange or science fiction. It is a powerful tool that people are welcome to use.  That is said not only in the spirit of openness but to communicate that we are making ESS for the benefit of society.  These are “neutrons for society.”

Neutron Science Facilities Worldwide:

Oak Ridge Neutron Facilities (SNS/HFIR)

NIST Center for Neutron Research, Maryland

Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE)

University of Missouri Research Reactor Center

European Spallation Source, Lund University, Sweden (48% complete)

ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, UK

Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL), France

Laboratoire Leon Brillouin, France

Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, Germany

Jülich Centre for Neutron Science (JCNS), Germany

FRM II, Munich, Germany

Budapest Neutron Center, Hungary

Swiss Spallation Neutron Source, Paul Scherrer Institut

Frank Laboratory of Neutron Physics, Dubna, Russia

China Spallation Neutron Source, Dongguan, China

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, India

Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC)

JAEA Research Reactors, Japan

High Flux Advanced Neutron Application Reactor, South Korea

Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering (ACNS)

Recent and Upcoming Conferences:

National Science Foundation Workshop on “Progress and Prospects in Neutron Scattering for the Biological Sciences,” Alexandria, Virginia, US, February 20-22, 2018

9th Workshop on Neutron Scattering Applications in Structural Biology, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, US, June 11-15, 2018

American Conference on Neutron Scattering, University of Maryland, College Park, US, June 24-28, 2018

Membranes Beyond,” International Workshop on Status and Perspectives in Research on Membrane Structures and Interaction, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, July 2-4, 2018

15th International Surface X-ray and Neutron Scattering Conference, Pohang Accelerator Lab, Pohang, South Korea, July 15-19, 2018

Dynamics of Membranes and their Constitutents, Lund Institute of Advanced Neutron and X-ray Science, Lund, Sweden, September 12-14, 2018

Neutrons and Biology Conference, Carqueriranne, France, September 16-19, 2018

High Brilliance Workshop, Cologne, Germany, October 4-5, 2018

ISIS Large Scale Structures User Meeting, Abingdon, UK, November 1-2, 2018

Gordon Research Conference on Neutron Scattering, Hong Kong, China, May 5-10, 2019

European Conference on Neutron Scattering 2019 (ECNS), Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 1-5, 2019


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