5th October 2017: Trieste, Italy – Italy celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Scientific Membership to the world’s flagship centre for neutron science, the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL). The last two decades of collaboration have tackled scientific challenges across areas as diverse as health and computing as well as upskilling the future generation of neutron scientists.
The ILL was founded 50 years ago in 1967 with the aim creating an intense, continuous source of neutrons devoted exclusively to civil fundamental research. Since then, the ILL has taken on a truly international dimension with the signing of Scientific Membership agreements with a number of European countries, alongside its Associated Members: France, Germany and the United Kingdom. 1997 was a milestone year for Italy, when it became part of this international partnership.
About 6% of all scientific visitors at the ILL and 24% of those welcomed from Scientific Member countries are Italian. Some of the most exciting science to be conducted at the ILL recently has come from Italian users. The revelation that ‘quantum tunnelling’ (where a particle ‘tunnels’ through a barrier) on graphene enables the birth of stars in space was discovered by the University of Parma. Work with the same department has brought molecular magnets closer to application in quantum computing – a relatively unexplored field – yet of critical importance for future technologies. Given the European Commission’s planned €1 billion quantum technologies flagship initiative in 2018, ILL is enabling Italian scientists to be at the forefront of European science priorities. In the global context, an ageing population means treating chronic diseases is a scientific challenge. In this area, ILL has supported the University of Milan in contributing to the fight against chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s – mapping the mechanisms underpinning the diseases to contribute to the design of new treatments. Indeed, many more outcomes have been achieved over the years, given the multidisciplinary scope of the transalpine collaboration.
Italy was in fact one of the first nations using neutrons for spectroscopy. With no nuclear source of their own since the 1960s, use of the ILL’s world-class facilities and expertise has enabled Italians to maintain influence on the global research stage, impacting areas such as Alzheimer’s, cryopreservation and investigation of life under extreme conditions. The last 18 years of scientific publishing at the ILL is a continued testament to that – publications involving Italian scientists and using data from the ILL account for 8% of the total.
As neutrons are non-destructive and can penetrate deep into matter, they are an ideal probe for most materials – including biological samples. Neutrons also possess a magnetic dipole moment, enabling them to reveal precise information on the magnetic behaviour of materials at atomic level. Exploited for these properties, neutrons allow scientists to observe atoms even on a picosecond (one trillionth of a second) time scale, giving them real-time information about where atoms are situated and what laws of dynamics they obey. The provision of neutrons has therefore been critical for Italian users by the ILL – whether academic such as universities or industrial such as Chimet S.p.A. The Arezzo-based company has performed many neutron experiments to help enhance its industrial processes and products, in particular with precious metal catalysts. Another remarkable collaboration began in 2011 with CAEN S.p.A for the development and optimisation of electronics and digital data acquisition systems.
“The unique research conducted by Italian users at the ILL over the last 20 years has been essential to solving some of the major challenges facing modern society. Carried out across a broad range of disciplines and feeding into innovation in many different fields of application, including health, materials and the future of computing, I have no doubt that science in Italy will continue to benefit from the unrivalled services provided by the ILL”, says Professor Helmut Schober, Director of the ILL.
“As a member state of the ILL over the last two decades, we are proud of the Italian contribution to such a unique European joint venture in the field of neutron science. The ILL has not only provided Italian researchers with a world-class research organisation, but also an inclusive community with which we have learnt, shared and thrived through many technical and scientific programs”, says Professor Fabio Bruni, Chairman of the Italian Society for Neutron Spectroscopy (SISN).
Within its remit as a ‘service institute’, the ILL continuously works to address its users’ needs by developing and building state-of-the-art instruments, the Italian community has made a crucial contribution to this process of modernisation, culminating in the development of two spectrometers – BRISP and IN13. These instruments have enabled innovation in the fields of life and materials sciences. By helping the development of instrumentation, the ILL has empowered its Scientific Member countries to provide their communities with the tools needed to maintain global competitiveness.
In fact, two of the sixteen instruments selected to be part of the upcoming European Spallation Source’s instrument suite were submitted or co-proposed by Italian researchers, illustrating how Italian expertise in the field of neutrons – largely nurtured by its 20-year relationship and training provision from the ILL – plays a key role in the future European neutron source’s construction.
The contribution to the future of science in Italy and Europe is not just limited to instrumentation but its workforce too – as well as the 25 Italian PhD students employed since the start of this century, over 300 Italian students have attended the SISN Learning Days school since its inception in 2009. It gives an introduction in Italian to neutron techniques, with applications in physics, chemistry, biology and earth sciences. Its first session, a theoretical one which takes place in Italy, provides students with the fundamentals of neutron spectroscopy and the basic principles of data analysis. The second experimental session allows them to take part in real neutron scattering measurements for two full days at the ILL, building skills of great interest for both academic and industrial sectors.
In conjunction with the SISN, the ILL held a special conference on 5th October 2017, at the SISSA Miramare Campus in Trieste, Italy, where some of the major successes of Italy’s collaboration with the ILL were presented in celebration of this landmark anniversary.
About ILL – the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) is an international research centre based in Grenoble, France. Funded by France, Germany and the United Kingdom, in partnership with 10 other European countries, it has led the world in neutron-scattering science and technology for almost 40 years. ILL operates one of the most intense neutron sources in the world, feeding beams of neutrons to a suite of 40 high-performance instruments. Research conducted at ILL covers a wide range of disciplines such as biology, (green) chemistry, materials science, condensed matter physics, as well as fundamental and nuclear physics. Within the framework of FILL2030 (a project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 731096), the ILL is designing its new business model to support the neutron users community with optimised services and financial resilience beyond 2030.
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