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Neutrons & Electronics

Electronics are hugely important to the country, the economy and to our daily lives. Research at ISIS and ILL is helping to develop the electronics and information technology of the future.


Mobile phone ceramics

The performance of components inside mobile phones is closely related to material properties. Neutron scattering can help manufacturers get the right specification.

Mobile phones use small ceramic antennas to give each one a dedicated operating frequency. They are used in base stations and handsets to carry the correct communication signals.

Consumer demand and evolving design of mobile phones has created a need to improve performance and lower the costs of these ceramic components. This includes reducing their power loss, which makes quality assurance essential during manufacture.

Device performance is closely related to material properties. Wireless solutions company Powerwave UK has re-created a critical manufacturing stage inside neutron scattering instruments where the ceramic components are heated to over 1000°C.

The research was able to identify atomic-scale differences between materials processed under identical conditions, but having different electrical properties.

This testing was significantly more efficient than previous trial-and-error methods, and has aided the manufacture of these components to the right specification.

Neutron scattering experiments generated the data necessary to understand the structure of these complex ceramic materials.
David Iddles, development manager, Powerwave UK

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Infection sensors

Biosensor quality control gets green light from neutron scattering experiments

Sensors to monitor living systems are made up of a mix of biological elements and electronics. When diagnosing infectious diseases, these biosensors must be sensitive and quick enough to distinguish between a virus and a bacterial infection. For example meningitis comes in bacterial or viral forms and can be fatal if diagnosed incorrectly.

Orla Protein Technologies, a spin-out from Newcastle University, makes bespoke protein surfaces for large companies developing the next generation of biosensors. Neutron scattering is the only technique that enables Orla to test the quality of its bio-engineered surfaces at scales 10,000 times smaller than a human hair.

Orla’s biosensors have a high performance protein surface, an invisible engineered biological film that detects the tell-tale molecules in a sample. This engineered biological film is so thin that a stack of 30,000 would only be as thick as a sheet of paper. Neutron scattering gives the information necessary to ensure that the protein surfaces are reliable for manufacturing.

“With neutron scattering we can introduce label molecules in reactions to help us tell where each component part is. These results reassure our customers and are essential for the success of our business.”
Professor Jeremy Lakey, Orla Proteintech

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Magnetic electronics

Creating a powerful new breed of electronics by controlling the magnetic properties of electrons flowing around silicon chips

Conventional electronics relies on electrical currents caused by moving electrons around minute circuits etched on silicon. An emerging technology called ‘spintronics’ uses the magnetic properties of electrons at the same time to create a powerful new class of components. This technology has potential for a variety of applications in IT, motoring and healthcare.

The most widely used spintronic device is found in the read-head of magnetic hard-disk drives used inside desktop and laptop computers.

The spintronic read-head senses changes in the magnetism of layers only a few atoms thick allowing it to read smaller data bits than older technology. This has given a 40-fold increase in data-storage density in the last five years.

But many of the most promising materials, which industry hopes to deploy in future devices, only work under extreme conditions such as very low temperatures or large magnetic fields. The aim is to understand the complex physics of these new materials to get them to work at room temperature.

A number of UK universities and companies are attacking the problem to get a layer-by-layer understanding of the chemical and magnetic structure to connect the fundamental physics of spintronic materials with their actual behaviour.

Neutron scattering is critical in exploiting spintronics for a powerful new generation of applications.

"Our aim is to understand the complex physics of these new materials to get them to work at room temperature. Neutron scattering is critical in exploiting spintronics for a powerful new generation of applications."
Professor Sean Langridge, ISIS.

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  • The full story
  • More about spintronics
  • As part of the 2011 TEDxCalTech one day event, David Awschalon talked about spintronics and its potential applications. You can watch a video of his talk here.


Neutron rain

ISIS is helping aerospace companies to manage the effects of cosmic radiation on microchips flown in aircraft.

Cosmic rays hitting the earth’s atmosphere generate showers of high energy neutrons that rain down on earth.

At normal aircraft flying altitudes of 30,000 to 35,000 feet, a silicon chip can be struck by a neutron every few seconds disrupting aircraft electronics with problems ranging from wiping a device’s memory to damaging the electronics.

Using neutrons, leading aerospace companies such as BAE, Aero Engine Controls, QinetiQ and MBDA are able to test components and manage the effects of cosmic radiation.

Dedicated testing facilities at ISIS can replicate hundreds of years of flying time in one hour of testing.

As the dimensions of electronic chip components continue to shrink, neutron effects are also being seen at ground-level in other areas such as transport, communications, medicine, and computing systems.

“ISIS is one of few facilities in the world capable of producing enough very high energy neutrons to perform accelerated testing. The new Chipir instrument at ISIS will be the best screening facility in the world.”
Andrew Chugg, MBDA

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Last updated: 28 June 2018


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