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Neutrons and Manufacturing of Soft Materials

The manufacture of soft materials impacts nearly every sector of modern life. Soft materials are primarily organic, amorphous, and can be described as highly viscous fluids. They form the basis of plastics used in consumer goods, automobiles, aerospace, and other structural applications, but are also important in higher efficiency energy solutions such as membranes for fuel cells, water filtration and desalination, and low energy displays. This class of materials is also at the heart of the modern diet, as important proteins within foods, preservative agents, and packaging materials. Soft materials are also the primary component of cutting edge pharmaceutical therapies, and are currently studied as potential solutions for advanced tissue regeneration. As such, the field spans topics in polymers, glasses, complex fluids, and many biomaterials.

This class of materials is defined by complexity, where structure is often defined in terms of time scale. As a result, many manufacturing processes occur far from equilibrium, and small variations in processing parameters can drastically change material properties. The need to precisely and accurately measure the response of soft materials to processing parameters increases as new, more complex materials are desired to solve issues confronting the modern world. Traditional measures of structure in these materials have relied heavily on neutron based techniques due to their non-destructive nature, their capacity to measure nanoscale dimensions, and their capacity to monitor structure under conditions of dynamic stress loading. As a result, neutron science has emerged as a core competency for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) through peer reviewed user programs at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR). The formation of the nSoft consortium represents an opportunity to develop a new generation of neutron-based measurements,sample environments, and data analysis methods to meet the emerging needs of manufacturers to develop higher functionality, higher value products based on increasingly complex soft materials.
Neutron image of a working fuel cell