NIST logo

Neutron Imaging for Health, Environment, and the Hydrogen Economy


Quantitative imaging tools enhance our ability to understand biological systems and achieve efficient hydrogen fuel cells. Today's metrological needs reach beyond existing optical and radiographic imaging abilities. Existing analytical probes do not adequately penetrate either massive or fragile environmental enclosures to nondestructively extract elemental information at the submicrometer scale - especially for hydrogenous systems. A neutron detector is being developed for submicrometer radiography that gives insight to the complex interface of inorganic/biological interactions – enhancing the understanding of biological surface interaction and mineral transport. Similarly, for the first time, it will pierce through heavy steel-encased pressure chambers to reveal the dynamic state of water distribution in the thin membranes.


A neutron imaging technique is proposed that produces digital images of submicrometer resolution in 2, 3, or 4 (time) dimensions and builds those images in real-time. The detector would out perform in resolution, by greater than 100 times, any existing or proposed neutron imaging system in what is considered a mature scientific field.

If successful, the proposed instrument will greatly enhance the imaging capabilities at NIST and in the US with immediate appeal to users spanning environmental, industrial, medical, government, and academic communities. Based upon the strong interest we have received from industrial, academic, and government scientists, both in the US and abroad, the proposed system would deliver immediate application for advancing hydrogen technology; a tool for 'discovery to manufacture' investigations. Likewise, medical doctors and cancer drug researchers hope to use the device to study cancer in brain, lung, and nerve tissue, bone degeneration, and drug efficacy. Environmental engineers and biologists, e.g., risk analysis scientists, find keen interest in following nanoparticle fate in the environment and toxicological studies.

The move to hydrogen economy, nanocarriers in medical research and treatment, corrosion in high-tech materials, and nanoparticle fate in the environment sum to a multi-trillion dollar level impact on the economy. Applying the current state of the art neutron radiography, fuel cell researchers estimate that the fuel cell deployment time was advanced by five years. The further technological advantage in fuel cell development made possible by the development of the proposed imaging system could be extrapolated to mean billions of dollars saved in the energy sector from overseas trade and billions of dollars revenue for US interests. Likewise, the medical and toxicological research advanced could reasonably mean saving lives while significantly benefiting the US economy in terms of billions of dollars. The development of the proposed instrument would give valuable insight in the biological systems and work toward understanding global climate change and control.

Even with the existing world-class NCNR neutron beams, the capability of the instrument would not be fully exploited. As the imaging detector nears completion, it will be moved onto a newly designed neutron beam line in the NCNR expansion guide hall. Here, using advanced optics, the instrument will exploit what is likely the most intense beam in the US.

Major Accomplishments:

  • Designed radiography components
  • Developed neutron converter prototypes

Start Date:

October 1, 2007

End Date:


Lead Organizational Unit:



General Motors Fuel Cell Research
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest University
Duke University
National Cancer Institute
University California Davis
Louisiana State University
University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Birmingham
Sensor Sciences: Pennsylvania State University


David Holbrook (837)
Jayne Morrow (831)
Raymond Cao
R. Gregory Downing

Associated Products:

Downing, R. G., High Resolution Position Sensitive Neutron Detector (HRPSND), Neutron Radiography, 8:616-621 (2008)


R. Gregory Downing
Phone: (301) 975-3782

Muhammad Arif
Phone: (301) 975-6303