Neutron diffraction

​​​​​​​​High temperature superconductor structure

Neutron diffraction experiments determine the atomic and/or magnetic structure of a material. This technique can be applied to study crystalline solids, gasses, liquids or amorphous materials.

Neutron diffraction is a form of elastic scattering where the neutrons exiting the experiment have more or less the same energy as the incident neutrons. The technique is similar to X-ray diffraction but the different type of radiation gives complementary information. A sample to be examined is placed in a beam of thermal or cold neutrons and the intensity pattern around the sample gives information of the structure of the material.

Nuclear scattering

Neutrons interact with matter differently than x-rays. X-rays interact primarily with the electron cloud surrounding each atom. The contribution to the diffracted x-ray intensity is therefore larger for atoms with a large atomic number (Z) than it is for atoms with a small Z. On the other hand, neutrons interact directly with the nucleus of the atom, and the contribution to the diffracted intensity is different for each isotope; for example, regular hydrogen and deuterium contribute differently. It is also often the case that light (low Z) atoms contribute strongly to the diffracted intensity even in the presence of large Z atoms. The scattering length varies from isotope to isotope rather than linearly with the atomic number. An element like Vanadium is a strong scatterer of X-rays, but its nuclei hardly scatter neutrons, which is why it often used as a container material. Non-magnetic neutron diffraction is directly sensitive to the positions of the nuclei of the atoms.

A major difference with X-rays is that the scattering is mostly due to the tiny nuclei of the atoms. That means that there is no need for an atomic form factor to describe the shape of the electron cloud of the atom and the scattering power of an atom does not fall off with the scattering angle as it does for X-rays. Diffractograms therefore can show strong well defined diffraction peaks even at high angles, particularly if the experiment is done at low temperatures. Many neutron sources are equipped with liquid helium cooling systems that allow to collect data at temperatures down to 4.2K. The superb high angle (i.e. high resolution) information means that the data can give very precise values for the atomic positions in the structure. On the other hand, Fourier maps (and to a lesser extent difference Fourier maps) derived from neutron data suffer from series termination errors, sometimes so much that the results are meaningless.

Magnetic scattering

Although neutrons are uncharged, they carry a spin, and therefore interact with magnetic moments, including those arising from the electron cloud around an atom. Neutron diffraction can therefore reveal the microscopic magnetic structure of a material.

Magnetic scattering does require an atomic form factor as it is caused by the much larger electron cloud around the tiny nucleus. The intensity of the magnetic contribution to the diffraction peaks will therefore dwindle towards higher angles.


Neutron Diffraction Instruments at ISIS


Alternative techniques