The neutron zone

Investigating solar panels, joint lubricants, COVID-19 and much more.

A neutron beam instrument, gifted to Australia by German materials research agency HZB, is now operating at the ANSTO nuclear reactor in Sydney.

Updated for Europe Day, 7 June 2021

The reflectometer is known as Spatz. It has hundreds of potential applications and is already being used to assess new materials for solar cells, investigate lubricants that might reduce the need for joint replacements, and track how COVID-19 proteins interact with human cells.

The instrument originally belonged to the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB), a materials research centre in Germany with strong ties to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

In 2015, HZB decided to donate Spatz to ANSTO because its own nuclear reactor was scheduled to be decommissioned.

So the machine was broken down and packed into 43 wooden crates, collectively weighing almost 30 tonnes, for a 45-day sea voyage from Hamburg to Sydney.

After Spatz arrived at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights facility in 2017, it took a team of experts including instrument scientist Dr Anton Le Brun more than 18 months to reassemble it and begin testing.

Spatz now uses a beam of neutrons generated in the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor in Sydney to reveal the structure of surfaces and interfaces such as cell membranes and multi-layered electronics.

ANSTO already had one neutron reflectometer, called Platypus. Spatz opens neutron scanning to more users and adds the ability to also analyse samples with infrared light.

SPATZ was commissioned in late 2020.

Banner image: The Spatz instrument under construction. Credit: ANSTO