Case study: Scattered neutrons land close to home
01 Apr 2009



A high-tech business in the local community is playing a critical role in one of the UK’s largest science projects.

​The vaccine delivery system is stable as it goes through the stomach but releases the protein as it enters the smal intestine. Creative Commons, graphical abstract, Journal of Pharmaceutics, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • The performance of the ISIS Pulsed Neutron and Muon Source depends critically on the performance of its moderators.
  • Moderators contain a complex system of layers containing cryogenically cooled methane and helium and cost approximately £45,000 to manufacture.  Moderators are replaced approximately every six months.
  • Moderators are incredibly detailed in their design and have to be manufactured with total accuracy. If they do not fit first time, they have to be remade from scratch.
  • The devices are being produced by an Oxfordshire company – Prototech – which won a tender in to manufacture the moderators.

Large research facilities at Oxfordshire’s Harwell Science and Innovation Campus issue contracts for millions of pounds of equipment and services every year. For local businesses, working with world-class facilities, such as the ISIS Pulsed Neutron and Muon Source, can offer long-term financial stability, an improved cashflow and opportunities to expand their manufacturing skills so they can tap into new markets.

Often, you do not have to look very far to find the perfect partner. ISIS recently worked with local engineering firm Prototech, to manufacture moderators for the Second Target Station – extremely sophisticated components critical to the successful performance of the new facility.

Neutrons emerging from the ISIS neutron targets at near light-speed must be slowed down considerably before they can be used for science experiments. To do this, ISIS uses devices called moderators. These are built like Russian dolls – containing several nested metal skins. A refrigeration plant cools the moderators to almost minus 240 degrees Celsius allowing them to hold reservoirs of liquid hydrogen and solid methane. 

Local business Prototech was awarded the contract to manufacture the moderators following a competitive tender. Each moderator costs £45,000 to produce and is manufactured to high precision.  A series of curved skins of increasing size are mounted inside an outer casing, and must never touch each other. Each skin is machined from a solid piece of aluminium to create an exact shape that cannot be out by more than half a millimetre in any direction. Since the moderators are critical to the performance of the ISIS Second Target Station, the moderator skins are inspected up to 40 times during manufacture.  If these components do not fit the specification exactly, the £200 million facility cannot operate.

Sean Higgins, lead engineer from ISIS on the project says that working with a local company has benefited both the supplier and the contractor. “These components are incredibly complicated to manufacture. Being able drive down the road to Prototech to discuss progress and solve problems has reduced the cost of the project. Sometimes you can’t solve problems on the phone – you need to sit next to each other and work it out. This was an incredibly complex piece of manufacturing and we are very lucky to have such skills available in the UK. But it is up to facilities such as ISIS to identify, and put them to good use.  If we don’t – we may lose them. ”

 “The idea that small companies cannot work with big research facilities is wrong,” says Prototech MD John Greenaway. “Small businesses can see huge benefits from the long term contracts on offer. Winning work from large world-class facilities such as ISIS gives us the confidence to pitch for other large contracts. And because our formal relationship with ISIS is set for four years, we can enjoy valuable long term stability at a time when the future of the UK economy is so uncertain.”

H. Reidy

Research date: April 2009​