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At a Glance: The NIST Center for Neutron Research and Its Research Reactor

The NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) is one of the world’s premier neutron research facilities, serving more than 3,000 researchers from over 260 organizations and accounting for nearly half of all U.S. neutron research. Its reactor produces neutrons that are used to study a wide variety of materials and phenomena. The reactor is operated by a professional staff of government employees (most originally trained in military reactor programs) and is licensed and regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Why is neutron research valuable? 

Neutrons are good at seeing inside materials. The NIST reactor produces streams of neutrons, which pass easily through many heavy materials like steel or iron, but interact strongly with light materials, particularly hydrogen. This makes neutrons capable of seeing what X-rays cannot.

Researchers use the NCNR’s neutron beams to obtain a wide variety of information that can lead to improved pharmaceuticals, more efficient fuel cells for electric vehicles, and the development of high-density data-storage systems. The facility’s neutrons provide key insights into biological molecules, high-tech alloys, high-temperature superconductors, biological materials, ceramics — the stuff of modern technology.  The information obtained with neutrons is difficult or even impossible to obtain by other means.

"Our research focuses on the discovery and development of new 'quantum materials' for quantum information science and energy applications. Neutron scattering at the NCNR plays an indispensable role. Due to the unique properties of the neutron, there is no replacement for neutron scattering as a scientific tool in the materials development process and continued investment into the technique is vital for the nation to remain competitive in the rapidly growing field of quantum-based electronics."

— Stephen Wilson, Professor and Associate Chair, Materials Department Associate Director, California Nanosystems Institute Co-Director, NSF's Quantum Foundry, UC Santa Barbara

How does the NIST reactor differ from a nuclear power reactor?

The NIST reactor differs from a nuclear power reactor in almost every way. A power reactor is a very large facility designed to produce vast amounts of heat to create high-pressure steam that drives electric-generator turbines. By contrast, the NIST research reactor is much smaller and simpler. It operates at atmospheric pressure and at a temperature cooler than many residential water heaters.

These characteristics result in an extremely low-risk facility that brings enormous research benefits to the nation. Redundant cooling and shutdown systems and backup electrical power ensure that the reactor always can be shut down safely and quickly. These systems are tested regularly.

"I have conducted SANS experiments for exactly 40 years. This unique and powerful tool has formed a key component of my research program, covering all manner of problems. The vast majority of these measurements have been made at NIST NCNR, which is a world class facility in every respect. Loss of the SANS capability at NIST would be a national scientific tragedy."

— Tim Lodge, Regents Professor, Department of Chemistry and Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, University of Minnesota

What is the NCNR’s safety record? 

The NCNR has an excellent safety record. There have not been any issues that have affected the safety of the public during its 50-year operation. 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires an environmental monitoring program that could detect the presence of a radiation discharge from the NIST reactor. NIST’s environmental monitoring program includes radiation monitors around the site. There have never been readings above regulatory limits that are designed to protect the public and environment.

"Materials innovations emerge out of learning new things about how to manipulate materials via chemical, mechanical, electrical or thermal means to produce improved properties. We are using the NCNR to study plastics mixed with nanocomposites with the intent of improving their mechanical properties.  The neutron source at NCNR is critical for this DOE-funded research project."

— Prof. Karen I. Winey, Department Chair and Towerbrook Foundation Faculty Fellow Department of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Pennsylvania

Where can I learn more about the research?

Neutron beams may not be as well known as X-rays are for exploring the hidden interiors of materials, but they reveal some things X-rays cannot. The most efficient way to produce high-quality beams is with a nuclear reactor, and the NCNR’s small reactor has paid big dividends for science and industry. Its neutrons have clarified the structure of vaccines, shown a potentially better way to make plastics, offered insight into possible materials for quantum computers, and helped us understand what happens to fast-flowing fluids, such as medicines pushed through syringes. They also can help with national security.

For an up-to-date list of these and other useful applications, check out the NCNR news feed.


Created April 9, 2021, Updated April 15, 2021