Neutrons have a number of unique properties that makes them useful for studying materials at the atomic scale.
- Neutron wavelengths are comparable to the spacings of atoms and molecules.
- Neutron energies are comparable to the time scales of molecular diffusion, vibrations and rotations.
- The neutron’s magnetic moment can be used to study the microscopic magnetic properties of materials.
- Neutrons can penetrate deep into matter (including many metals) enabling the study of large samples, or small ones inside complex sample environments.
- Neutrons are non-destructive, making them suitable for the characterisation of delicate and precious samples.
- A range of sample environments can be used, enabling measurements under relevant conditions, including extreme temperature and pressure.
- The neutron scattering power of different nuclei means that lighter atoms can be studied in the presence of heavier ones.
- Neutrons can distinguish between different isotopes, and so isotopic substitution (e.g. H/D) can be used to highlight specific structural features.
- Neutron scattering is highly complementary to other techniques, such as X-ray scattering, electron microscopy and computational methods.
Muons, rather than being scattered by the sample, implant into them and decay to give information about the local structure.