Researchers at MIT, working with partners at NASA, have developed a new concept for a microscope that would use neutrons — subatomic particles with no electrical charge — instead of beams of light or electrons to create high-resolution images. The device could open up new areas of research on materials and biological samples at tiny scales.
Among other features, neutron-based instruments have the ability to probe inside metal objects — such as fuel cells, batteries, and engines, even when in use — to learn details of their internal structure. Neutron instruments are also uniquely sensitive to magnetic properties and to lighter elements that are important in biological materials.
Schematic layout of the focusing-mirror-based SANS instrument.
The actual instrument uses several reflective cylinders nested one inside the other, so as to increase the surface area available for reflection. The resulting device could improve the performance of existing neutron imaging systems by a factor of about 50, the researchers say — allowing for much sharper images, much smaller instruments, or both.
The researchers next plan to build an optimized neutron-microscopy system in collaboration with NIST, which already has a major neutron-beam research facility. This new instrument is expected to cost a few million dollars.
Moncton points out that a recent major advance in the field was the construction of a $1.4 billion facility that provides a tenfold increase in neutron flux. “Given the cost of producing the neutron beams, it is essential to equip them with the most efficient optics possible,” he says.
Roger Pynn, a materials scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who was not involved in this research, says, “I expect it to lead to a number of breakthroughs in neutron imaging. … It offers the potential for some really new applications of neutron scattering — something that we haven’t seen for quite a while.”
The team’s small prototype neutron microscope is shown set up for initial testing at MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. The microscope mirrors are inside the small metal box at top right. Photo Courtesy of the researchers
Small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) is the most significant neutron technique in terms of impact on science and engineering. However, the basic design of SANS facilities has not changed since the technique’s inception about 40 years ago, as all SANS instruments, save a few, are still designed as pinhole cameras. Here we demonstrate a novel concept for a SANS instrument based on axisymmetric focusing mirrors. We build and test a small prototype, which shows a performance comparable to that of conventional large SANS facilities. By using a detector with 48-μm pixels, we build the most compact SANS instrument in the world. This work, together with the recent demonstration that such mirrors could increase the signal rate at least 50-fold, for large samples, while improving resolution, paves the way to novel SANS instruments, thus affecting a broad community of scientists and engineers.