At a press briefing held today at the internationally renowned Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, scientists will present a number of projects that have been supported by the European Commission and that show the importance of research infrastructures to our understanding of materials.
What is Materials Science?
Materials science looks at the nano-meter and micro-meter scales, where atoms organise themselves into continuous three-dimensional structures that grow into the ceramics, plastics and metals of the visible world. The properties of these structures – and how they can be modified and made suitable for technological applications – are the domain of the materials scientist.
Materials science has always fascinated physicists and scientists. Throughout history, mankind has tried to master this science to unlock the mysteries of life itself. Society as we know it today owes a huge debt to the early efforts of scientists working to develop better, stronger, more efficient materials for use in industrial systems, home appliances, leisure equipment, medical devices and just about everything we touch in our daily lives.
By understanding and controlling changes in the structure of a material – at the microscopic scale, nano-scale and potentially smaller – scientists can greatly enhance its physical and chemical properties on the large scale, making it possible to build better, more sustainable materials and improve our quality of life.
The role of Research infrastructures in materials science
But do we fully understand all the details behind the properties of materials? In recent 2022s science has gone to great lengths to study and develop finer and finer materials to the nano-level. The prefix ‘nano’ indicates extreme smallness, so small that the naked eye could only appreciate the fine detail of a nano-structure if it was magnified 1 000 million times its original size.
To understand the nano-world, there are tools used to measure and manipulate ultra-small structures, such as nano-scale resolution microscopes, lasers and spectroscopes. Research Infrastructures are those major instruments, installations, or facilities that provide top-class research services to support the work of materials scientists.
Research Infrastructures are clearly vital in helping Europe develop top-class research – fundamental and applied – in materials science. The EU recognises the strategic role that such science plays in stimulating new knowledge which drives growth and industrial competitiveness but the challenge is to develop the right approaches and the tools to support all the scientific developments needed in the future more effectively.
Staying with the example of nano-science, it becomes clear that this is a truly multidisciplinary field involving materials scientists, mechanical and electronic engineers, who team up with the likes of physicists, chemists and biologists to study and produce new materials, medical devices, food and packaging, chemical coatings, sensors, electronic devices and much more. Research infrastructures play an important role in bringing scientists from all these different fields together, and providing them with common tools.
Research Infrastructures in the European Context
The Research Infrastructures initiative, part of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), is working to make the best use of current facilities in Europe and also to develop new ones. Five major schemes are available to support Research Infrastructures. The new scheme for ‘integrating activities’ was introduced under FP6 to provide a better framework at the European level for the operation of such infrastructures in a given field. A single I3 (Integrating Infrastructure Initiative) contract typically bundles ‘networking’ (multi-disciplinary approaches), ‘research’ (increased performances) and ‘services’ (access) together for greater co-operation and efficiency.
Two other new schemes were created in FP6, one to support the design and the other the construction of new pan-European Research Infrastructures.
The Success of European Materials Science
The impact of the Research Infrastructures action can be seen in a number of critical scientific endeavours spanning almost two decades. In the materials science field, in particular, there are a number of very positive examples, which are presented today.
Neurons and muons for non destructive testing: the NMI3 project.
This project focusing on neutron scattering (Neutron Scattering and Muon Spectroscopy – NMI3) is offering unique non-destructive instruments to the materials scientists. Unlike traditional methods used to look into materials which often damage or alter them, muons and neutrons penetrate matter without destroying or damaging it, opening new possibilities for analysis of structure and components. NMI3 assembles 23 partners from 14 countries, including 11 Research Infrastructures, together with other interested organisations. It is making a valuable contribution to the materials research base, underscoring European technological development and efforts to build a genuine European Research Area.
Lasers for materials science: the LaserLab project.
Another project, Integrated European Laser Laboratories (Laserlab-Europe), is a network of 17 laser infrastructures from nine European countries which has been set-up to increase the contribution of lasers and their applications in all faculties of the sciences, in particular in materials-related technologies such as material modification (e.g cutting and welding), and non-invasive analytical techniques as holography (three dimensional reconstruction of objects) and laser spectroscopy (penetrating matter with light to collect information on its chemical make-up).
Synchrotron radiation to illuminate materials: the IA-SFS project.
A third case is a project called Integrating Activity on Synchrotron and Free Electron Laser Science (IA-SFS), whose two main goals are: to help external users gain access to major synchrotron and free electron laser (FEL) facilities, and to foster joint research activities which boost the performance of these facilities. Synchrotrons are large circular accelerators of particles that can be used to produce light/radiation between infrared and x-rays which are used to analyse materials. Synchrotron radiation offers new potential for materials characterisation, in the optimisation of technical processes and in in-situ investigations of microstructure developments.
EU Materials Research in Action: the FAME Network of Excellence
This network focuses on smart nano-materials, which are at the heart of a whole range of new devices and processes. Fame is a practical example on how research infrastructures are key elements for the excellence of research in the field of materials.
Research Infrastructures and Nano-Materials: the Gennesys, Dynasync, NanoQuanta Cases
Three other test cases illustrate the value of European research co-operation. In particular, the Gennesys project illustrates the need to join forces and to integrate actions for the future of research in nanomaterials and nanotechnology using synchrotron and neutron installations.
The European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI)
The European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) aims at supporting a coherent European approach to policy-making on research infrastructures. ESFRI is currently preparing a roadmap for new Research Infrastructures of pan-European interest.
Survey of European Research Infrastructures
To complement the work of ESFRI, comprehensive information about the current pattern of Research Infrastructures in Europe is essential. A first European survey was carried out at the end of 2004, resulting in feedback from 585 Research Infrastructures. 472 are reported to be of top-level relevance for the scientific community. For 274 of these, the total investment for construction was over 20 M€ and for 75 of these the number of scientists directly employed is more than 100. Crystalline structures in matter are made up of rows, sheets and networks of atoms. A materials scientist explores this world of atoms, learning how they move, their stability and behaviour and how they interact under certain conditions.