Physics & Materials Science

…uncovering the heart of matter

Delve deeply into the enigmatic mysteries of materials or navigate through the fundamental physics underlying the world around us and dramatic discoveries can come to light. Since our facilities can study where atoms are and what they are doing in almost any solid or liquid, they have an amazing versatility.

We enlist the full force of our cutting-edge capabilities to explore the structure, properties and behaviour of matter and unravel the puzzles posed by magnetism, superconductivity and other fascinating phenomena. In this way, we unlock the new understanding essential to opening up new portals to progress.

Discovering why some materials shrink when you heat them; probing how quantum mechanics governs the behaviour of solids at low temperature; revealing the innermost secrets of artefacts fashioned by ancient civilisations – our research capabilities in physics and materials science create building blocks for advances in all kinds of endeavour. For example:

  • Structure: We can investigate how atoms and molecules bind to each other to determine atomic and molecular structures. This is used when we work with industry to strengthen aircraft turbine blades or look at the alloys inside nuclear power plants. Using x-rays at Diamond Light Source we have demonstrated a new method to study ‘chirality’, an essential part of understanding the chemistry of life, based on 'forbidden reflections'.

  • Ultrafast changes in materials : Pulses of extreme ultra-violet light from the Central Laser Facility’s ultrafast ‘soft x-ray’ facility Artemis produce x-ray movies capable of revealing electronic and structural changes in complex materials, with each movie frame capturing a slice of time lasting less than a trillionth of a second.

  • Magnetism: We can determine the magnetic field strength, direction and order in a material – for example, antiferromagnetism - even in layers only a few nanometers thick. This research underpins advances in electronic devices and computer components, for example in data storage for more efficient digital devices. It also advances fundamental science, for example in measuring the effects of separating magnetic north and south poles within magnets for the first time.

  • Superconductivity: Superconducting materials conduct electricity without resistance. Because we dissipate a lot of energy to heat generated by resistance this technology could vastly reduce our energy consumption. Scientists are using neutrons and muons to study the magnetic behaviour and quantum fluctuations to understand and develop these materials. Our ISIS facility has shed important new light on the fundamental characteristics and capabilities of novel iron-based superconducting materials, enhancing their potential usefulness by showing how their critical temperature for superconductivity can be increased.

  • Semiconductors: Semiconductors are the vital ingredient in modern electronic devices. A few unwanted atoms (known as impurities) in a semiconductor can drastically change its performance. Muons can act like the impurity hydrogen in semiconductors and allow us to study how it might affect the material’s electrical properties. We are also developing ways of using neutrons and muons to look at the effect of cosmic rays on semiconductor devices.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000