Sharing light and neutrons

Japanese researchers are coming to Australia for our neutron beams. It’s helping them continue their research following the shutdown of all Japanese research reactors in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. And it cements a friendship in beamline science that kickstarted Australian access to synchrotron light.

A tsuba (hand guard) from a samurai sword imaged using neutrons from OPAL. Credit: Floriana Salvemini, ANSTO
A tsuba (hand guard) from a samurai sword imaged using neutrons from OPAL.
Credit: Floriana Salvemini, ANSTO

“Japan’s leadership in electronics, advanced manufacturing and computing complements Australia’s leadership in agriculture, health and minerals,” says the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) Robert Robinson, who chaired an Australia Japan Neutron Science Workshop in 2013.
The collaboration is contributing to research into: hard magnets for electric cars; new high density plastics; superconducting cables for the ITER fusion reactor; and the structure of a range of biological molecules.

Japan has a rich history in nuclear research and has 14 research reactors, ranging from very small teaching reactors to the 140MW JOYO prototype fast breeder reactor. But following the Great East Japan Earthquake, all Japanese research reactors were shut down and are awaiting regulatory and government approvals before they can start up again.

Neutron beams were among the products of the research reactors. Beams from the reactors are diverted through a beamline where they can perform a wide range of useful tasks: testing turbines, train wheels and tracks, and similar metal objects; investigating the structure of starch and other biological molecules; developing new battery technologies; and many other material science applications.

So ANSTO offered time on its neutron beamlines at OPAL, Australia’s research reactor, located on the southern edge of Sydney. Now Japanese scientists are the second largest international user community.

Australia is also contributing to training. In 2011 the 4th Asia-Oceania Neutron Scattering Association (AONSA) Neutron School was relocated from Tokai to ANSTO and the Australian Prime Minister’s Education Assistance Program for Japan supported the participation of four Japanese researchers.

This cooperation is over two decades long. From 1992 to 2008 thousands of Australian scientists ventured north to Japan’s Photon Factory in Tsukuba, north-east of Tokyo, where the Australian government established the Australian National Beamline Facility. The facility was used for a vast range of applications, from developing anti-flu drugs to creating new wool fibres and assessing jet engine wear.

“It trained a whole generation of Australian scientists and laid the groundwork for the construction of Australia’s own synchrotron,” says ANSTO’s Richard Garrett.

“Australian science owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Japan and the Photon Factory for their generous support over all these years,” he says.