The neutron zone

The gift of a high-tech German neutron beam instrument is set to help Australian researchers develop new antibiotics, understand smart polymer coatings and create more efficient solar cells.

The Spatz neutron reflectometer 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.

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.

Anton and other researchers are looking forward to having the new tool at their disposal.

“I’ll be looking at new antibiotics to see how they attack the surface layers of bacteria,” he says. “Other projects will study how smart polymers change under different conditions, and how solar cells react to variations in heat and light.”

ANSTO already has one neutron reflectometer, called Platypus, but Spatz will mean more experiments can be done and adds the ability to analyse samples with infrared light as well as neutrons.

The instrument is now in the final stages of testing and certification, and the first real science is expected to kick off in late 2019.

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