At full power, the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL, Oak Ridge, TN), will produce the world’s most intense pulsed neutron beams for neutron scattering research methods. With a full-power capability of 1.4 megawatts, the SNS is used for scientific research and industrial development. While neutrons are abundant in the universe, for the detailed images researchers require, only a neutron of the right “brightness” can be used; SNS provides these brighter neutrons. The neutron delivery system consists of shutters composed of tungsten and steel, weighing 18 and 30 tons and two meters thick, and which are raised and lowered vertically by stainless steel hydraulic cylinders. The shutters are used to maintain position integrity and control the flow of neutrons of the SNS. Employed at each shutter are two specially designed hydraulic release stainless steel Sitema Safety Catchers designed by Advanced Machine & Engineering (AME, Rockford, IL).

One of the shutter rooms at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
In order to control the beam of neutrons that go out to the instruments and examination samples, ORNL turns the neutron flow on and off by way of shutters (which work much like camera shutters). A large steel gate system contains the shutters, and the shutters themselves swing 20" from the up/closed position to the down/open position. Neutron production is an almost constant event; SNS is due to run 5,000 hours per year (out of typical year’s 8,760 hours), producing pulses of neutrons every 17 milliseconds. Whenever high-energy particles hit the SNS’s target, neutrons are generated (however, if the SNS proton bean is shut off, neutron production ceases at once). The shutters block the neutron beam — instrumentation must be changed, maintenance performed, and examination samples installed by ORNL researchers without running the risk of being struck by the neutron flow. Along with the shutter system, the SNS is has several levels of containment to keep potentially hazardous material from escaping beyond ORNL.

The safety catchers, designed to prevent gravity fall of a vertical load by absorbing kinetic energy, are not used for the safety of personnel, but for that of the structure due to the weight of the shutters. The shutters raise and lower by way of a central hydraulic life cylinder with twin drive rods in parallel. SNS/ORNL turned to the AME safety catchers for their hydraulic nature; they develop holding force on the rod by self-intensification created by the load as the rod travels downward (they do not develop holding force when the rod travels upward). As part of their function, the shutters must be held in the up-and-locked position. An initial, lightweight demonstration facility used air cylinders that drove pins through a drive rod to lock to shutters into place. For the much heavier shutters eventually used, this option proved unreliable; the hole in the drive rob, even with the pin inserted, was an unacceptable stress concentration point in a critical part of the system. Additionally, the use of a pin system would create a stop sudden enough to generate a shock in the system. The safety catchers, using high-pressure (2,200 psi) filtered tap water, catch and hold the rod in the up position, and for a long period of time if needed or in the event of hydraulic pressure loss, cylinder failure, control valve failure, or other malfunction.

The neutron beam used by SNS/ORNL scientists for examination is the final stage of a complex harvesting process. When a fast particle, such as a high-energy proton, bombards a heavy atomic nucleus, some neutrons are knocked out, or “spalled,” in a nuclear reaction called spallation. For researchers to harvest neutrons needed for experiments, negatively charged hydrogen ions are first produced by an ion source. These ions are injected into a linear accelerator (linac), and are accelerated to very high energies (2.5 million electron volts).

The beam from the linac must be sharpened more than 1,000 times to produce the short, sharp “bunch” of neutrons needed for optimal neutron-scattering research. For this stage of the process, the ions then pass through a stripper foil that removes electrons, reducing the ion to a single proton. The protons pass into a ring where they accumulate in bunches. Approximately 1,200 turns are accumulated, and then all these protons are released at once, producing, at full power, a 1.4 megawatt pulse lasting less than 1 millionth of a second. These pulses strike a container of a heavy-metal target and spall it. SNS uses liquid mercury, as it is not damaged by radiation like some solids (other neutron sources use tungsten or tantalum), its high atomic number makes it a reliable source of neutrons (120 to each atom), and as a liquid, mercury can absorb the heat and the shock of the proton pulses. For every one proton that strikes the target, 20 to 30 neutrons are directly kicked out and scatter in a spherical pattern. Some of the neutrons distribute into the 18 neutron beam lines that extend radially from the center and these neutrons stream toward the neutron scattering instruments located at the end of the beam lines. The shutters, and their safety catchers, ring the neutron-generation area and are located on each of these beam lines. When the shutters are open, the neutrons exit and strike the sample inside the instrument (analogous to exposing film when the shutter is open).

Once spalled, the corresponding pulses of neutrons are slowed down in a moderator and guided through beam lines to areas containing special instruments such as neutron detectors. To be suitable for research, neutrons coming out of the target must be low-energy, i.e., room temperature or colder. To be at room temperature, passing through cells filled with water slows the neutrons emerging from the target. To produce even colder neutrons (useful for research on polymers and proteins), the pulse is passed through containers of liquid hydrogen at a temperature of 20 K. These moderators are located above and below the target.

When a beam of neutrons strikes a target, many will pass through the material. Enough, however, will interact directly with the target’s nuclei and ricochet at an angle in a behavior called neutron diffraction, or neutron scattering. Under bombardment, the nuclei also heat up, causing some of its neutrons to eject. Using detectors, scientists count neutrons scattered by the SNS, measure their energies and the angles at which they scatter, and map their final position. Used in the study of the arrangement, motion, and interaction of atoms in materials, neutron scattering has multiple applications and provides information not obtainable by other techniques. A neutron acts like a tiny bar magnet that points like a compass needle; the size and direction of this magnetization is called a magnetic moment. Beams of “polarized neutrons” whose moments all point in the same direction can be created. Such beams allow scientists to probe properties of magnetic materials and measure fluctuations in magnetic fields penetrating and produced by superconductors.

Neutrons scattered from hydrogen in water can locate microscopic cracking in fighter jet wings that is an early warning of corrosion and signal the wing should be replaced. Neutron-scattering research has led to advances in materials research, as well as medicine, high-temperature superconductors, and superconducting ceramics.

Neutrons can locate other light atoms among heavy atoms. This capability of neutrons allowed scientists to determine the critical positions of light oxygen atoms in yttrium-barium-copper oxide, a high-temperature, superconducting ceramic. Since the energies of thermal neutrons almost match the energies of atoms in motion, neutrons can be used to track molecular vibrations, movements of atoms during catalytic reactions, and changes in the behavior of materials subjected to rising temperature, pressure, magnetic fields, or other outside forces. Via this process, researchers can make movies of atoms in action.

More Information

For more information, contact Ken Chipley of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Ken Davis, Business Development Manager at Advanced Machine & Engineering Co., at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; or visit