SwissNeutronics AG - Guides for the smallest of particles

Christian Schanzer from SwissNeutronics with some tools from Brütsch/Rüegger Tools.

To the average person, a neutron guide looks like a beautifully crafted square glass tube. However, an expert such as Christian Schanzer, a doctor of physics and COO of SwissNeutronics AG, understands the full potential of the device. "In simple terms, you can compare a neutron guide to a water pipe", he explains. Instead of water, neutrons are directed precisely to the location selected by the researchers. "Depending on the project, this distance can range from a few metres to several hundred metres", explains Christian Schanzer. But why would you send neutrons, tiny components that join together with protons to form atomic nuclei, on this journey at all? What is there to gain?

"Using this method, research institutions can investigate the physical properties of materials or even discover new phenomena", explains the expert. The neutron guide directs the neutrons to highly specialised measuring devices, which act somewhat like microscopes. These allow the researchers to understand and map the structure and movement of atoms in materials. This means that new materials can be tested, for example. Another interesting area of application for the technology is engineering: "Neutrons can be used to scan objects, similar to how MRI scanners are used in the medical field", says Schanzer. For example, entire engine blocks can be "X-rayed" with the help of neutrons to gain valuable insight, such as detecting which processes take place in the cylinders during fuel combustion.

SwissNeutronics AG was founded in 1999 as a spin-off of the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Villigen, Aargau. The company's products and services are built on the foundation of knowledge developed at the PSI in relation to the design and production of "supermirror coatings". Since then, SwissNeutronics has been continuously developing neutron supermirror coating technology. Today, the product portfolio includes a wide range of neutron optics, as well as the planning, construction, manufacturing and installation of complete neutron guide systems. SwissNeutronics' customers include research institutions all over the world.

Image 4. Beat Brisacher constructing a neutron guide in the production plant.

No ordinary mirror

But how can particles as tiny as neutrons be transported and directed at all? This is all down to the "supermirror coatings" on the mirrored surfaces that line the inside of the neutron guides. The challenge is to transport low-energy neutrons over long distances from a neutron source, all while achieving the lowest possible loss of intensity. Glass surfaces are used for this purpose, which are given supermirror coatings to increase their reflection coefficient. Put simply: this coating means that the surface reflects with higher efficiency, which increases the number of neutrons transported.

SwissNeutronics AG is the world leader in this important field of mirror coating. This success largely falls to Christian Schanzer, who has a high level of experience in this field. "I am still impressed by the progress that we have made since I first joined the company almost 20 years ago", he says with a grin. It is therefore not surprising that SwissNeutronics AG products are now used in research institutions all over the world. The team has also grown and today comprises 22 people. To enable these experts to meet the growing demand, SwissNeutronics AG is initiating the construction of another plant building at its Klingnau site this year.

No compromise on tooling

It is clear that coating these mirrored surfaces is a highly specialised process. However, the assembly of the neutron guide itself also requires tremendous precision. For this reason, the experts at SwissNeutronics rely on measuring devices from Brütsch/Rüegger Tools. "We value this cooperation highly", stresses Christian Schanzer. Due to the specialised nature of SwissNeutronics equipment, it is not always possible to resort to standard solutions. "In these cases, we can count on the experience and knowledge of Brütsch/Rüegger Tools, who are always able to offer us excellent components that we can use to construct our neutron guides". The ease of purchasing and the quick delivery of tools are an additional plus.

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