Climate & Environment

Climate & Environment

Without our climate, and the natural environment around us, human life would not be able to sustain itself. Climate change is already having a massive impact on weather patterns, and pollution-causing fossil fuels remain a prominent source of energy. In addition to this, urbanisation and industrialisation are also putting a strain on the environment. To preserve our standards of living and tackle these societal challenges, we must start to minimise this strain. Cleaner technologies and processes can be developed, and the better we understand the complex ecosystems that intertwine with human infrastructure, the better we can protect them. Neutrons can shed light on all aspects of this, from the air we breathe, to the rocks beneath our feet.

Cleaning up the air

Minimising pollution requires a deeper understanding of processes that generate and release contaminants into the surroundings. Neutron activation analysis can detect these contaminants, even at very low concentrations, thus identifying a problem area before it has an environmental impact. Neutron diffraction and reflectometry can reveal detailed characteristics of pollutants, and how they affect the environment. Furthermore, neutrons are capable of showing how materials like plastics can be efficiently manufactured and recycled, with the smallest effect on the environment. Read more.

The atmosphere

The greenhouse effect is caused by the emission of gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) into the atmosphere. These gases block the heat that is radiating towards space, trapping it close to the Earth.

The manufacturing of cement accounts for around 4% of total global CO2 emissions. The limited lifetime of cement means that it must often be replaced, and this means further CO2 emissions. Neutron scattering techniques have been used to gather close detail around the process of cement ageing, helping extend the length of time the cement can be used, and therefore reducing the CO2 emissions from cement production by reducing demand.  A further method with which to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is the use of materials for carbon capture and storage. Small angle neutron scattering (SANS) can be used to analyse and optimise these materials, effectively mitigating the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global warming. Read more.

Ash to eco-friendly solutions

Millions of tonnes of coal ash are produced every year by coal-fired power plants, which are capable of causing huge damage to the environment. Chemically, this ash is similar to the volcanic precursors of natural zeolites that act as adsorbents in refinery facilities, which suggests a possible eco-friendly solution to the ash. Researchers have modified the ash, and used neutron activation analysis to characterise the new material. They found it could effectively remove hazardous metals from solutions, such as in nuclear waste treatment. Read more.

Cosmic footprints

Over 10,000 years ago, the climate of the Earth cooled significantly within a decade; this is likely to be one factor that led to the extinction of mammoths. Famously, the cause of this is thought to be the impact of a powerful meteorite, which covered America and Europe with a thin layer of rock. As neutron technology is non-destructive, it is the perfect partner for analysing fragile samples and was used to analyse archaeological soils of the meteoritic particles. This proved to be an important tool in determining what the meteorite was composed of, as well as the impact location, helping scientists confirm that it likely caused the cooling of the Earth. Read more.

Further reading

Environment and earth sciences, NMI3

In search of cosmic footprints using neutrons, MLZ

Neutrons and environment, ISIS

Energy and Environment, SINE2020