Environment and Earth Sciences


The increasing world population density, together with global urbanisation and industrialisation are putting a real strain on the planet and the environment. To keep on growing and prospering, or simply maintain a livable standard of living, countries need to minimise this strain and protect their environment. Neutrons, thanks to their multiple applications and the tremendous capabilities for analysis that they offer, can contribute to the development of clean technologies and processes. They can also provide much needed insight into Earth processes and the properties of rocks and minerals.

Fighting pollution


Neutrons help assess exposure to pollution in industrial workplaces. Click to read more!

Neutron scattering is helping scientists to fight pollution and develop environmentally friendly processes that generate and release fewer contaminants into the environment. Neutron activation analysis and prompt gamma activation analysis can provide information about rare elements and serve as a way to detect contaminants. Neutron reflectometry and neutron diffraction can help define the intrinsic nature of pollutants and its relationship with the substance they are polluting .

Neutrons are able reveal the short range order of ions sequestered in minerals like clays. In particular, when the clays are in contact with water neutrons can determine the hydration of these ions, a key element to determine whether the ions could be released in nature or not. This is true for any pollutant, but it is particularly pertinent for actinides in nuclear repositories.

Neutron research is also helping scientists understand what materials, such as plastics, can be blended into useful products, while being efficiently manufactured and recycled with the least effect on the environment.

Atmospheric science

Clouds Clouds Brownish gray cloud (dust pollution) over the Tasman Sea just off the coast of southern Australia. True-color image taken by the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor [(SeaWiFS)]. Image courtesy the [SeaWiFS Project], NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE, on Wikimedia Commons

Neutron diffraction can also contribute to atmospheric science and the study of ice crystals in clouds, and give valuable insight into the role of clouds in global warming. Neutrons have their role to play in the battle to minimise carbon emissions.

One area in particular is in the manufacture of cement, which contributes 5-7% of man-made (and 4% of total global) CO2 emissions. Neutron scattering techniques can help understand the process of cement aging – and thereby help to extend the lifetime of cement. This will in turn reduce overall cement production requirements and the carbon emissions it engenders.

Small angle neutron scattering can also be used to analyse materials for carbon capture and storage, another way to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

Research into alternative energy sources can also benefit from neutron scattering techniques: hydrogen storage, solar cells are only a few of the technologies that neutrons are contributing to develop, please see our Energy page for more details.

Earth sciences

Neutrons can be applied to several fields of Earth sciences. They provide a unique tool for the understanding of both surface and deep Earth processes.

In the former case, which is dominated by the effects of water, the sensitivity of neutrons to hydrogen allows precise measurements to be made of the structure, synthesis and dynamics of hydrous mineral phases.

In the latter case, which utilises the penetrating power of neutrons to study large volume samples coupled with the sensitivity of neutrons to light atoms, the field can be subdivided into either petrophysics, the understanding of the properties of rocks at high temperatures and pressures, or mineral physics, the detailed study of the individual constituent mineral phases.
In space, neutrons can help detect water on planets and also make possible the study of comet cores via earth hydrates and the study of meteorites via earth ice.

Further reading