In Sweden the most powerful neutron microscope in the World

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Three of the main Italian research institutions, together with the Ministry for Education, University and Research, participate in one of Europe's most ambitious projects of recent years: the construction of the most powerful neutron microscope in the World: European Spallation Source (ESS). It will be built in Sweden and will be used for interdisciplinary studies, from life sciences to physics, from nanotechnology to pharmaceuticals. A collaboration between CNR, Elettra Synchrotron of Trieste, INFN and MIUR will put Italy among the largest investors in the project, for a total of 104 million euro invested, and perhaps first in Europe in terms of number of topics in which it collaborates. A research infrastructure involving a total cost of about 2 billion euro, whose construction will start in 2015 and that will see the development of the first research programs in 2022-2023. In short, the current Italian teenagers might obtain their own PhD in ESS.

We have asked about ESS to Eugenio Nappi, MIUR representative in the Steering Committee of ESS and recently nominated vice-president of the INFN.

“ESS is the last born research organization in Europe after CERN and ESA,” Nappi explains, “a new infrastructure capable of accelerating  protons just as CERN accelerators do, with the difference that here the main focus is on producing a huge quantity of neutrons. In addition, unlike what is done at CERN, ESS will study both the structure of organic and inorganic matter by means of neutron scattering.”

But what is a neutron microscope and what is its function? “It is basically a proton accelerator,” says Nappi, “made to snatch neutrons from the target material, which are subsequently delivered to the experimental stations where experiments are performed. Since neutron scattering is a very challenging technique, intense and fast pulses of neutrons are required to achieve the desired performance; for this reason, the goal of ESS is to provide neutron beams featuring an intensity 30 times larger than that currently available at the brightest existing facility. The reason why neutrons are chosen is that they are the most suitable particles to study the biological matter.”

The applications of this technique are many, starting from the radiographs of construction materials, such as those used for building nuclear power plants. “There is already an infrastructure similar to ESS in UK, which is called ISIS,” Nappi said. “It allowed English Government to save a considerable amount of money, since it was able to determine, with greater precision than other current techniques, how much life actually the materials of the nuclear plants still have, in order to dismantle them not before the time.” Another relevant area of application is the development of new materials, being the neutron scattering technique able to provide detailed images of molecular structures.

But what is perhaps of utmost interest is precisely the role that Italy played and will play in this huge international project. Certainly not a secondary one compared to the German model or to the English example. Although it is true that in recent years, when Italian Government had to cut financial resources, it has often started from the field of research, it is equally true that Italy is always at the top, when it comes to the highest level.

“We are currently on the fourth position – after Germany, which is in first place, UK and France – concerning the investment to ESS, with € 104 million,” Nappi explains. “Furthermore, we are among the few who have already signed the agreement for funding, along with Spain and UK.”

Finally, there is also another aspect to consider. “Of course, we are at the fourth position regarding funding committed, but at the same time we are the country that has wider expertise, because we are taking commitments for most aspects of the project,” concludes Nappi. “Through INFN, Italy has in fact contributed to the design of the neutron source and the accelerator section at low energies; Elettra Synchrotron Trieste is involved in the aspect of the accelerator system diagnostics, and CNR into the field of neutronics instrumentation. For this reason, EES is for our country a great opportunity and we have a prominent role in EES just because we have been able to coordinate the involvement of these three excellent research institutions and benefited of the resulting large synergy.”

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Cronache della ricerca

Gli italiani si classificano terzi fra i vincitori degli starting grant dell’European Research Council, il bando più competitivo dell’Europa dedicato ai giovani ricercatori. Bene quindi per gli italiani (benché in discesa rispetto al bando 2018, dove si erano classificati secondi dietro la solita Germania). Male invece per l’Italia, che vede la maggior parte dei suoi ricercatori primeggiare in università e centri di ricerca all’estero.