Neutron Sources Make Impacts: Neutrons Canada Welcomes Impact Assessment of US Neutron Sources


National neutron beam facilities produce social and economic benefits worth at least double the investment—this was the conclusion of independent assessments, first in the United Kingdom, and most recently in the United States, which has invested billions to build and operate these facilities.

In particular, the recent assessment conducted by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) focused on the economic impacts of knowledge arising from three national facilities that provide neutron beams for thousands of U.S. researchers. The study calculated that every $1 invested in neutron facilities generates $2.67 in benefits from four high-impact research areas: computer hard drives, pharmaceuticals, electric vehicles, and aerospace safety. However, these results are conservative, as they exclude benefits from hundreds of other research areas, the training of highly qualified personnel, facility expenditures, and other spin-off benefits.

The electric vehicle case study is a great example of benefits that are just beginning to be realized as EVs are being adopted and that will continue to accrue into the future as technology advances further. The estimated benefit to Canada cumulative to 2030 is $1.6B.

The computer hard drive case study is a clear and powerful example of realized benefits. Research on magnetic materials using neutron beams in the U.S. and Canada was seminal in understanding the basic principles on which hard drives operate, including the phenomenon of giant magnetoresistance (GMR). This research took place in the early 1990s, while companies such as IBM and Seagate were in the initial stages of developing hard drives based on GMR. Informed by this scientific knowledge, the technology advanced significantly, dramatically reducing the cost of computer memory. The estimated benefit to U.S. consumers from lower computer memory costs from 1998 through 2005 is a present value of $114 billion, excluding other benefits from the widespread use of these computers in the economy.

Canada’s contributions to the scientific efforts to understand GMR included polarized neutron reflectometry measurements at the NRU reactor at Chalk River Laboratories to characterize the GMR effect in various materials. Additionally, at least one student who earned his PhD conducting such measurements went to work for Seagate upon graduation, bringing his knowledge and experience while the company was still developing its first commercial GMR hard drive.

Neutron beams are uniquely suited to such research, and without the measurements conducted at North American neutron sources, the road to commercial GMR hard drives would have been much longer. The RTI study calculated the portion of the $114 billion impact attributable to research relying on neutron facilities, assuming the research accelerated commercialization by only two years. The results place the impact of the U.S. neutron facilities at $10 billion (source: RTI). More than half of the present value of all U.S. investments in its three main neutron facilities over 70 years ($18B over 1960 to 2030) was recuperated from this one research area over just 7 years (1998 to 2005).

Similarly, the benefits to Canada of such research outweigh Canada’s direct investments in neutron beam facilities. Canada’s NRU reactor and its predecessor, the NRX reactor, at Chalk River Laboratories were operated as multipurpose facilities. In addition to providing neutron beams, they were used for isotope production and nuclear power development, where the benefits from these latter purposes justified the cost of the neutron source. Canada’s incremental investments in the neutron beam facilities can be estimated at $200 million over 70 years. By comparison, the economic impact from lower cost hard drives can be estimated at $9 billion by scaling down for Canada’s economy, of which $800 million can be attributed to research using neutrons—four times greater than Canada’s investment.

For further information:

Walsh, A. C., Nienow, S., Merker, J. M. S., Decker, E. C., Strack, C. N., Salem, M. E., Martin, G., Shaw, B. (2024). Assessment of the Retrospective and Prospective Economic Impacts of Investments in U.S. Neutron Research Sources and Facilities from 1960 to 2030. RTI International Report Sponsored by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.

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