Neutrons & Energy

Energy security is vital for our economy and our daily lives and ensuring our energy security for the future produces many challenges to be tackled by scientists.

STFC is working with the other research councils to find solutions through the cross research council energy programme.

You can find out more about other work that ILL is doing in materials science and that ISIS is doing in energy research, on their websites.


 

A Hydrogen fuelled society

New materials that can efficiently and safely store hydrogen have been discovered using neutron scattering promising a greener future for transport.

Petrol and diesel are the lifeblood of transport, fuelling family school runs and holidays and keeping supermarkets stocked with food.  But emissions into the atmosphere are causing greater and greater concern. Clean-burning hydrogen offers a way to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. 

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is a perfect fuel. It has three times more energy than petrol per unit of weight, and when it burns it produces nothing but water. 

Today’s technology is capable of powering a car using hydrogen but making and storing hydrogen safely is a challenge. The automotive industry is working to find safe, efficient and low-cost ways to store and transport hydrogen. 

Scientists using neutron scattering have designed inexpensive hydrogen-rich solids to store and release hydrogen that can be safely used in cars and homes.

With neutrons we are on the road to making hydrogen fuel a reality. 

"Our new hydrogen storage materials offer real potential for running cars, planes and other vehicles with little extra cost and no extra inconvenience to the driver."

  Professor Stephen Bennington, Chief Scientist, Cella Energy

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Extending the lifetime of nuclear power stations

The lifetimes of two UK nuclear power stations have been extended allowing them to continue to supply electricity to the national grid. 

Nuclear power stations contain thousands of welded joints which over time become vulnerable to material ageing.  EDF Energy worked with the Open University Materials Engineering group studying critical welded components using the powerful Engin-X instrument at ISIS to satisfy safety regulators of the integrity of repair welds in four Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors. 

This study helped demonstrate that the welds retained their structural integrity, and supported 5 year life-extensions to be made for these power plants, deferring the need for decommissioning and replacement of two nuclear power stations at a cost of around £1.5 billion each.  

“Neutron scattering studies of welding procedures have enabled uninterrupted electricity generation and allowed 5 year life extensions to be made for Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors”

 EDF Energy

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Flexible Plastic Solar Cells

Plastic solar cells are much cheaper to produce than conventional silicon solar cells and have the potential to be produced in large quantities.

In one hour, enough energy from sunlight falls on the Earth to satisfy the energy needs of the planet for a year, but large-scale harvesting of this enormous energy supply is only just starting. 

Plastic polymer solar cells are much cheaper to produce than conventional silicon solar panels. Neutron scattering experiments have shown that efficient solar cells can be made from very thin films, with a flexibility like cling-film. These can be manufactured using very simple and inexpensive methods, by spreading a mix of polymers thinly over huge areas.

High-volume manufacturing could produce films of solar cells that are over a thousand times thinner than the width of a human hair. These films could be used to make light and easily transportable solar cell devices.

 “Ultra-cheap and efficient polymer solar cells that can cover huge areas could help move us into a new age of renewable energy.”  

Professor Richard Jones, University of Sheffield

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Super superconductors

Striking images collected in neutron scattering experiments may be the clue to understanding how advanced ceramics can transmit electricity without losing energy.

The ceramics, known as high-temperature superconductors, lose all resistance to the flow of electricity when cooled below -150ºC. Wires made from the ceramics can conduct up to 140 times more power than conventional copper wires of the same dimension, carrying current with 100% efficiency.

Yet despite their growing use in applications ranging from medical imaging scanners to revolutionary propulsion systems, exactly how they work remains a mystery.

Uniquely sensitive neutron instruments available at ISIS and the ILL are giving an unmatched clarity of vision into the interior world of superconductors. The unique results are guiding the search for new materials in the quest to make superconductivity take place at room temperature.

Find out more:

Neutrons homepage

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