It has applications from materials science through to soft matter and bioscience.
The technique provides valuable information over a wide variety of scientific and technological applications including chemical aggregation, polymer and surfactant adsorption, structure of thin film magnetic systems, biological membranes, etc.
The technique involves shining a highly collimated beam of neutrons onto an extremely flat surface and measuring the intensity of reflected radiation as a function of angle or neutron wavelength. The exact shape of the reflectivity profile provides detailed information about the structure of the surface, including the thickness, density, and roughness of any thin films layered on the substrate.
Neutron reflectometry is a specular reflection technique, where the angle of the incident beam is equal to the angle of the reflected beam. The reflection is usually described in terms of a momentum transfer vector, denoted qz, which describes the change in momentum of a neutron after reflecting from the material. Conventionally the z direction is defined to be the film normal direction, and for specular reflection, the scattering vector has only a z-component. A typical neutron reflectometry plot displays the reflected intensity (relative to the incident beam) as a function of the scattering vector:
qz = 4πλ.sin(θ)
where λ is the neutron wavelength, and θ is the angle of incidence. The Abeles matrix formalism or the Parratt recursion can be used to describe the specular signal arising from the interface.
The wavelength of the neutrons used for reflectivity are typically on the order of 0.2 to 1 nm (2 to 10 Å). Like all neutron scattering techniques, neutron reflectometry is sensitive to contrast arising from different nuclei (as compared to electron density, which is measured in x-ray scattering). This allows the technique to differentiate between various isotopes of elements. Neutron reflectometry measures the neutron scattering length density (SLD) and can be used to accurately calculate material density if the atomic composition is known.