ESS will accommodate multidisciplinary research into many different types of material – from the largest to the smallest. This could concern anything from how the materials used in the wing of an aeroplane operate at high temperatures to how a cell is affected by a particular drug.
“In the same way that CERN has made Europe the centre for particle physics, ESS has the potential to make Europe the world’s centre for materials research”, says John Womersley.
He is the newly appointed Director General of ESS – European Spallation Source – and has just acquired an apartment in Copenhagen, which makes commuting a lot easier. Until now, he has been CEO of STFC – the Science and Technology Facilities Council – which is one of the UK’s largest scientific institutions. He is also a researcher in experimental physics, although he no longer has time to conduct his own research.
“We are presented with new challenges every day. In Sweden, there is not a great deal of experience of running a large international research facility, so we are learning at the same time as we are developing.”
Gigantic microscope that uses neutrons
ESS is the largest research venture ever undertaken in Sweden, and nothing similar can be found anywhere else in Europe. It is jointly hosted in collaboration with Denmark, with both countries covering almost half of the cost of the investment, amounting to approximately SEK 17 billion. At least a further 13 European countries will share in paying the remaining investment costs, as well as in operations and involvement.
In simplified terms, ESS can be described as a gigantic microscope that uses a neutron beam. By studying how the neutrons bounce and scatter when they encounter different materials, scientists can gain an understanding of how the material works.
Also located in Lund is the MAX IV laboratory, where materials are being studied using synchrotron light. MAX IV also represents a new and major investment in infrastructure, and was opened in June 2016. The idea is that ESS and MAX IV will complement each other, and that thousands of researchers from all over the world will gather here each year in order to conduct experiments.
A brand new campus area – Science Village Scandinavia – is under construction. The development is also expected to generate a demand for new restaurants, transport connections, housing, innovators and service companies.
Unique opportunity for Swedish researchers
Research teams will come and stay for around one week to do their experiments, but John Womersley would like them to stay for longer so that they perform their analyses here, publish them and then submit a new application based upon the results.
“This would enable the creation of an ecosystem where students, post-doctoral students and researchers from different universities can meet. Physicists will meet chemists and biologists and they will learn to work together, creating fertile ground where seeds can grow.”
He believes that ESS provides a unique opportunity for Swedish researchers in particular. They will not need to travel very far and neither would they be working in an unfamiliar environment. It is important that higher education institutions take advantage of the opportunity: students must also have the possibility to come here.
“The generation of students currently being recruited into higher education will provide the first researchers to use ESS. They are young and enthusiastic and will conduct the most interesting research projects.”
One agreed principle within ESS is that, following a period where the research team has a unique right to use its data, the data will be made available to all. John Womersley wants to challenge the scientific community to develop new ways of using this data.
“It will be possible to perform experiments without even having to travel to ESS by using the data that has already been collected. This provides the opportunity for smart analysts to combine different experiments that nobody has previously thought of.”
Involved in ESS since 2000
Aleksandar Matic is a professor at the Department of Physics at Gothenburg’s Chalmers University of Technology and has been involved in ESS since the year 2000. He was partly responsible for submitting the first proposal for ESS to be located in Sweden.
The idea of a modern European facility for neutron-scattering has been the subject of discussion since the 1980s. In November 1998, the OECD produced a report that stated that there was an ‘urgent’ need, but the process has been slow.
“Feasibility studies were made but it was hard to get things moving. Nobody was willing to take the political decision about such an investment”, says Aleksandar Matic.
Gradually, however, the Nordic countries began to make plans together and, in 2005, former Minister for Finance and chairman of Lund University Allan Larsson was tasked with looking into a Swedish commitment. Competition was provided by a number of other countries but, in 2009, European research ministers took the decision to locate ESS in Lund.
“The Swedish proposal was an attractive concept with solid regional support with regard to research and the industrial environment, good access to communications, proximity to the airport and a good site for construction.”
Aleksandar Matic believes that there is strong interest among Swedish researchers to apply to ESS.
“It is important to build upon the good structures that already exist in Sweden’s research community – with strong universities, centres of excellence and strategic research environments – so that Swedish researchers are able to compete for places at ESS.”
Particularly good for soft materials
When it opens its doors to researchers in 2023, ESS will be the world’s best neutron-scattering facility. The delay has actually resulted in the facility being even better now than if it had been built ten or fifteen years ago. The accelerator is more powerful, which enables it to generate even more neutrons. Much has been learned from the experience of others and data capacity is now much greater.
Aleksandar Matic believes that ESS will be of great importance to research related to classic Swedish industry, such as the automotive, metal, pharmaceutical and forestry industries.
“ESS will be particularly good for what are called ‘soft materials’ such as polymers and biomaterials. I am expecting breakthroughs in this area.”
This concerns research into biological systems but also covers research into batteries and fuel cells. Practical application could involve areas such as environmental science, medicine, climate, communications and transport. Once the facility has been completed, Aleksandar Matic hopes to conduct his own research here. He points out that the fact that ESS will have the best capacity in the world will not be enough in itself.
“The facility will not be conducting the research – that will be down to those of us at universities, businesses and institutes. We have to be good enough if this is to be the best in the world.”