Revolutions in mobility over the past few centuries have provided humans with unprecedented access to transport across the globe. The safety of these transport innovations, however, is of critical importance. Large-capacity transport, such as passenger planes and trains, must be especially thorough in the testing of their mechanical safety and ability carry multiple occupants; even a single fault in the engineering or materials of the structure has the potential to endanger lives.

Neutrons are well-suited to assessing the safety and efficiency of vehicles and their components, which are often composed of alloys: a mixture of metals combined to form a stronger or lighter material. Neutrons are ideal for examining these components as they can uniquely distinguish between lighter and heavier metals. Neutron analysis is also a highly flexible tool, allowing the experimental environments to be adjusted to observe the reaction of the materials under conditions that mimic the future ‘working’ pressure. This can ensure the resulting vehicles adhere to the highest standards of safety and reliability and the materials chosen are optimal.

Extending the lifespan of ships

90% of all trade is carried by ships. Manufacturers in the marine industry have used specific techniques since the 1970s to strengthen the welded joints in ships, but the real-world suitability of the processes for an extended lifespan had not been explored. Engineers could demonstrate added strength at the beginning of the process, enabling faster ship construction, but the effectiveness of older joints had not been well characterised. Neutrons are perfect for examining the stress of materials down to the molecular level, under long-term constraints that mimic those of a boat spending long periods at sea. Understanding the long-term strength of the structures at the molecular level can help make the best choices in building materials to ensure ships with longer lifespans. Read more.

Illuminating the function of biofuels

Biofuels are produced through the conversion of plants into a variety of renewable products, with varying efficiencies. Creating a viable biofuel for use across the transport industry in aeroplanes, cars, and trains, could result in significant progress towards reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and creating a more sustainable transport industry. To produce biofuels from plants, the biomass must be broken down, with enzymes conducting a large proportion of the deconstruction. The non-destructive properties of neutrons are ideal for analysing these fragile organic materials, providing an unparalleled view into the exact mechanism of the breakdown of biomass substances. Neutrons can respond to light elements like hydrogen, the bonds of which are especially critical in organic structures, enhancing our understanding of the breakdown process that produces biofuels, and providing a greater knowledge with which to enable a future with more sustainable, renewable fuels. Read more.

Safety in the skies

The alloys used in aircraft manufacturing are carefully engineered to provide the machine with best performance and safety, however they can be difficult to weld together into the large structures needed to build a plane while new techniques in welding can actually introduce stresses such as weaknesses into the joints. Neutrons can be used as a non-destructive quality analysis tool to investigate the integrity of welds in aluminium alloys, and to assess their suitability for future aircraft programmes. Research into the nature of the stresses involved allows both the optimisation of welding conditions, and the development of post-weld heat treatments to relieve the stresses, giving insights into the optimum manufacturing conditions to produce the safest aircraft. Read more.

Further reading

Building Safer ships with Lloyds Register, ISIS

Illuminating the function of a biofuels enzyme with neutrons, MLZ

Staying safe in the skies, ISIS

Big science and industry join forces to innovate new technologies, ILL