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Neutrons & Environment

Life on planet Earth is dependent on safeguarding the environment around us.

Making sure that the environment remains stable and unspoilt produces a range of challenges for scientists.


Enhanced oil recovery

A harmless soap-like additive turns carbon dioxide into a viable commercial solvent to increase the amount of crude oil that can be extracted from oil fields.

More than 40,000 oil fields are scattered around the world with the largest individual fields in the Middle East estimated to each hold more than 60 billion barrels of oil. Only a fraction of this oil can be brought to the surface because of reservoir characteristics and limitations in petroleum extraction technologies.

Enhanced oil recovery techniques such as water-flooding or gas-injection are frequently used to improve the yield from a field.

High pressure carbon dioxide is widely used in enhanced oil recovery as it is able to flow through the pores in the rock much more easily than water. Additives can thicken the carbon dioxide allowing it to flow through the rock more efficiently and push oil out of very small rock pores, increasing the oil field yield by up to 30%.

Previous advances in using carbon dioxide for oil recovery have used additives containing environmentally damaging fluorine. A new, safe additive developed using the unique molecular information coming from neutron scattering experiments contains no fluorine at all and is a harmless hydrocarbon.

Getting longer life out of existing oil reserves will also give more time for research into non-carbon energy sources such as solar or hydrogen.

“The discovery of a chemical capable of modifying the properties of carbon dioxide to make it suitable for widespread use as a solvent in enhanced oil recovery has been recognised as a game-changing technology.”
Professor Bob Enick, University of Pittsburgh

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Antarctic fossils

Leafy branches of 50 million year old conifers locked in rocks indicate a very different climate in Antarctica to the ice and snow found today

Although Antarctica is now a land of ice and snow, for most of its history it was covered with lush forests. The remains of the forests are now preserved in the rock record as fossil wood, leaves, flowers and pollen. 

Neutron imaging allows the three-dimensional structure of conifer branches to be seen for the first time since they were encased in sediment 50 million years ago without breaking open the rock and destroying the fragile structures.  

Alongside other studies, it has been established that conifers were an important component of forests that grew on Antarctica millions of years ago. This new knowledge is being used to understand climate systems in a former warm greenhouse world, and plant evolution and survival under the harsh polar light conditions. 

"We take it for granted that Antarctica has always been a frozen wilderness, but the ice caps only appeared relatively recently in geological history. I find the idea that Antarctica was once forested absolutely mind-boggling."
Professor Jane Francis, University of Leeds

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Cloudy skies

Air pollution fundamentally changes the way clouds form by destroying the oily layers coating water droplets

Clouds are made up of droplets that form when water vapour condenses on tiny particles (aerosols) suspended in the air. Aerosols can come from many places: sea salt from the ocean, plants, or the burning of fossil fuels and vegetation. 

The more aerosols there are, the easier it is for clouds to form. The droplets grow in size until they are large enough to fall as rain. 

Modelling cloud formation is one of hardest jobs in forecasting climate change. The potential for aerosols to form clouds and raindrops is dictated by little-known chemical reactions within the atmosphere. 

Neutron scattering experiments have demonstrated that ozone created in the lower atmosphere from vehicle pollution can attack the oily films coating water droplets in the air and reduce the speed at which they can grow. 

This newly-discovered mechanism is being used to update models of organic aerosols in the atmosphere and their impact on cloud reflectivity and drizzle potential, rainfall patterns and the water cycle.

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Capturing Nanoparticles

A new technique could help improve the environmental management of nanoparticle wastes from foods, cosmetics, medicines, cleaners and personal care products. 

Nanoparticles are becoming indispensable in today’s society, with over a million tonnes of silica nanoparticles alone being used every year in food, cosmetics and many other industries. Many of these find their way into the sewage system, and extensive research is being carried out into where they go from there, and what effect they have in the environment.

Research carried out at the ISIS Neutron Source by scientists from King’s College London, Oxford University and NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) has uncovered a way by which these particles can be removed from waste water to prevent their appearance in the environment.  

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Last updated: 30 April 2018


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