New Active Materials Lab opens at Harwell

First ever handling facility of this kind at a synchrotron

One of the great strengths developed by the Mary Lyon Centre at MRC Harwell (MLC) over the last two decades is the ability to forge strong relationships with the many collaborators and users who have taken advantage of our world class services.

Increased knowledge of active materials is essential as it may concern how materials behave under radiation, such as engineering materials used in nuclear power stations and understanding interactions with the environment as old sites like Sellafield are decommissioned as part of the UK’s nuclear legacy.

At Sellafield, we work with complicated materials that are hard to handle and manipulate, so they are difficult to analyse. We know that as these materials age and decay, their structure changes and our modelling demonstrates this; however models only provide a certain level of confidence. The Active Material Laboratory is unique in that it can handle and prepare the material so that Diamond can help us see these materials in a way that we have never seen before.

Dr Robin Ibbotson

Understanding structural change in materials is a major challenge for the nuclear industry and the academics working in this field, and scientific research is key to provide evidence and support for decision-making in terms of infrastructure projects and/or designing nuclear facilities.

The new facility significantly improves the capabilities for researchers, ranging from those involved in construction materials for nuclear energy facilities to those involved in waste remediation. It also provides its users with the flexibility to prepare samples on site, enabling them to perform experiments that were previously impossible in the UK, complementing Diamond’s existing offering of excellent analytical instruments for active materials research.

During the launch, Principal Investigator, Professor Fred Mosselmans, introduced talks from experienced users already taking advantage of the new lab, Professor Claire Corkhill, University of Sheffield and Professor Katherine Morris, University of Manchester.

Nuclear decommissioning of our sites and radioactive waste disposal are priorities for the UK. These are large projects – the nuclear legacy is estimated to be over £200 billion worth of cost and it’s a multi decadal time challenge. At the same time the UK is also looking towards new nuclear power reactors to meet its carbon net zero targets. Safety cases for radioactive waste disposal require scientific underpinning and here Diamond Light Source provides a powerful tool in delivering analysis of radionuclides in complex materials. The AML has a key role to play, and the academic and user community is developing as the AML National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF) and other NNUF come online and we’re starting to see young researchers really exploiting the capabilities at Diamond.

Prof Morris

Prof Corkhill’s work is also focused on radioactive waste disposal and nuclear decommissioning.

The Active Materials Laboratory at Diamond presents great opportunities for us in our radioactive waste research such as having access to laboratory space for running middle- to long-term degradation experiments. We will be able to leave our samples running in the lab and periodically, through the user access scheme, put those samples in front of the synchrotron beam and use different techniques to understand long-term corrosion processes. This is essential for trying to underpin the safe disposal of radioactive waste and also to understand longer term processes in facilities that need decommissioning. It would be ideal if the degradation of materials could be in a range of different environments such as air, aqueous environments, different temperatures or controlled atmospheres, and the Active Materials Laboratory gives us access to all of these things.

Prof Corkhill

The tri-carb liquid scintillation counter inside the Active Materials LabThe tri-carb liquid scintillation counter inside the Active Materials Lab

Currently, there are around 15-20 ‘active’ experiments at Diamond per year, with researchers from the Universities of Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield and Oxford conducting much of the active materials research on site. These numbers are expected to double in the coming years as the availability of the new laboratory will mean some users who currently study inactive samples will be able to become active material synchrotron users.

Professor Susannah Speller, a lecturer in Materials Science at the University of Oxford, was part of the first group to use the Active Materials Laboratory (AML) at Diamond. They used a combination of techniques to explore how radiation will damage the superconducting magnets essential for fusion tokamak power plants. Their findings were recently published in Communications Materials.

At the AML, we were able to do some initial etching of our samples to remove unwanted layers and then put them into containment to transport them to the beamline. Then we could take them back into the AML, perform an anneal to test defect recovery and take them back to the beamline to examine the results. We were the first users at the AML, and we can only investigate these neutron-irradiated materials because we have access to this facility.

Professor Speller

Facilities at the AML include wet and dry laboratories equipped for handling a wide range of active materials, a counting room for active materials to be characterised, and secure storage as appropriate.

Diamond users are invited to submit proposals to access the AML at Diamond in conjunction with scheduled beamtime and through the offline lab scheme. There are no charges for using the AML at Diamond for science intended for publication.

The AML is an associated facility of the National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF). For any questions about the AML, please contact Principal Investigator Fred Mosselmans at