The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is holding a special industry workshop on June 2 and 3, 2011, at the NIST laboratories in Gaithersburg, Md., to assess interest in forming a new government-industry consortium dedicated to developing neutron-based measurement tools for "soft materials" tailored to manufacturers. The work potentially could aid a broad range of industries from plastics to pharmaceuticals.
Soft materials—so named in contrast to more ancient materials like metals and ceramics—are generally formed of large, organic molecules. The range of soft materials in modern manufacturing is huge. Plastics are soft materials, but so too are the synthetic membranes used in water filtration and fuel cells; protein-based pharmaceuticals, food additives and preservation agents; engineered tissues for advanced medical therapies; advanced lubricants; and even glasses.
Generally amorphous and with complex chemical and physical properties, soft materials present unique measurement challenges. Beams of low-energy neutrons ("cold" neutrons) at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) are ideal for probing the behavior of many soft materials, according to NIST polymer scientist Ronald Jones, because neutrons are good at imaging the low-density, relatively large molecules typical of soft materials.
"Neutrons have been used for a long time by people in academia to look at the shape, size and properties of large molecules at the nanoscale," says Jones, "but much of industry looks at this as a very powerful, but inaccessible technique. One of the things we're trying for with this consortium is to make it more accessible. We want to help develop the techniques specifically needed for manufacturing processes."
Neutron probes can help answer questions ranging from how a particular polymer flows into molds during manufacturing to how biopharmaceutical proteins react with the surfactants meant to keep them from clumping together or sticking to surfaces, says Jones. "We can watch these things, as they happen, at the nanoscale."
The two-day "NIST Workshop on Neutron Measurements to Advance the Manufacture of Soft Materials" will combine discussions of research opportunities in soft materials that could best be addressed by neutron techniques with presentations on the capabilities of the NCNR neutron beam lines. The meeting also will discuss NIST's planned "nSoft" consortium to develop advanced neutron-based probes for soft materials. The consortium would be administered by NIST. Consortium research and development would be conducted by NIST staff members along with at least one technical representative from each participating member company.