The special properties of the neutron and how it interacts with matter make it a unique probe of materials structure and function. Neutron scattering is a key tool for the development of next-generation materials for applications from energy to health. It is critical for optimizing existing technologies, such as oil extraction from shale; for the development of new technologies, such as practical fuel-cell power plants for vehicles; and for understanding the basic science on which completely disruptive new technologies can be built. The impact of neutron science on economic competitiveness is high because better performing advanced materials are a basis for better performing devices and systems. A highly pertinent current example is the development of safe, cheap, environmentally friendly, and earth-abundant materials and devices for energy storage—for applications from grid storage through practical electric vehicles, all the way to long-lived active medical implants. Neutron science may appear arcane, but it instead has rather direct short, medium, and long-term impacts on lifestyle and societal well-being as well as on economic competitiveness.
At the request of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has, since 1959, annually assembled panels of experts from academia, industry, medicine, and other scientific and engineering communities to assess the quality and effectiveness of the NIST measurements and standards laboratories, of which there are now seven,1 as well as the adequacy of the laboratories’ resources. The context of this technical assessment is the mission of NIST, which is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve the quality of life. NIST laboratories conduct research to anticipate future metrology and standards needs, enable scientific and technological advances, and improve and refine existing measurement methods and services.
In 2018, the Director of NIST asked the National Academies to appoint a panel on review of the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) and provided it with a statement of task (see Box 1.1).
The director pointed out that in arriving at its assessments, the panel was to be sensitive to the overall mission of NIST, which is “to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve the quality of life.” The objectives of the research done at NIST laboratories are to anticipate future metrology and standards needs, enable new scientific and technological advances, and improve and refine existing measurement methods and services.
1 The seven NIST laboratories are the Engineering Laboratory, the Physical Measurement Laboratory, the Information Technology Laboratory, the Material Measurement Laboratory, the Communication Technology Laboratory, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and the NIST Center for Neutron Research.
In order to accomplish this assessment, the National Academies assembled the Panel on Review of the Center for Neutron Research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a panel of nine volunteers whose collective expertise corresponds well with the research done at the NCNR. The panel members participated in an onsite review at the NCNR on July 10-12, 2018. The visit began with welcoming remarks and overview comments from the Director of NIST and from the Director of the NCNR. Their talks were followed by scientific and technical presentations by NCNR staff, a tour of the facilities, and a poster session featuring research by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Ample time was provided for discussions with NCNR management and for panel deliberation. The panel was provided with copies of all presentations and posters, NCNR annual reports, and copies of other studies relevant to neutron science in the United States, all of which provided valuable input for the preparation of this report.
Time constraints did not allow the panel to explore all aspects of NCNR operations. Rather, the panel focused on the research that the leadership of the NCNR chose to present to it and on a number of issues related to laboratory development that the panel identified as requiring particular attention. This report presents the panel’s observations and recommendations. Because the issues this panel was asked to address differed somewhat from those considered by earlier panels, this report should be regarded as complementing their reports, rather than as replacing them.