The Office of Nuclear Physics funds a community of scientists to do basic nuclear physics research that seeks to uncover the fundamental nature of matter. As a consequence of this basic research, many ideas and instruments (funded through various sources) have found their way into many different areas in public life as well as in other government programs. This highlight is an example of such a “spinoff”.
To tease apart the delicate inner workings of an atom’s nucleus, researchers need precision particle accelerators, such as the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at DOE’s Jefferson Lab. Scientists have capitalized on the core technology that powers CEBAF to develop and license a process to fabricate high-quality nanotubes from boron nitride. These boron-nitride nanotubes maintain their strength in air at temperatures up to 900°C, efficiently conduct heat but not electricity, can be made long and thin, are thought to be non-toxic to living tissues, and may be added to other materials to make composites with enhanced properties.
Boron-nitride nanotubes are being explored for their potential in a wide range of scientific, industrial, and commercial applications, such as in composites for unmanned aerial vehicles, efficient solar panel arrays, tough coatings, long-lasting batteries, bright LEDs, effective radiation shielding, neutron detection, and rugged aerospace components. The material is also being considered for use in many biomedical applications, such as scaffolding for nerve and bone tissue regeneration, targeted drug delivery, and cancer treatments.
In 1994, researchers affiliated with DOE‘s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab theorized that it should be possible to produce nanotubes from a white material called boron nitride. Just like carbon nanotubes, boron-nitride nanotubes (BNNTs) are composed of a sheet of atoms that are a single layer thick and are curled up into a tube. These tubes may be composed of one, two, or more rolled sheets of atoms of interlinked boron and nitrogen, with each sheet referred to as a “wall.” BNNTs were first produced at Berkeley Lab in 1995, and in 2009, researchers developed a now-patented process to synthesize high-quality BNNTs at DOE’s Jefferson Lab supported in part by DOE, the Office of Naval Research, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, and in collaboration with NASA Langley Research Center and the National Institute of Aerospace. The goal was to create novel materials that could benefit nuclear physics as well as aerospace and other applications of advanced materials. The process was developed using a unique particle accelerator built with superconducting radiofrequency technology. CEBAF is the first large-scale implementation of superconducting radiofrequency accelerator technology, and it was proposed, designed, and built to enable nuclear physics research. Jefferson Lab scientists then leveraged their expertise in this technology to build a first-of-its-kind sister accelerator to power a free-electron laser. The unique properties of the laser allowed researchers to develop the patented synthesis technique for high-quality BNNTs. The BNNTs are very narrow and long; are as strong as carbon nanotubes; have few walls; are highly resistant to heat, high voltage, and neutron radiation; and are made of pure boron nitride (which suggests they are likely not harmful to living cells). Patents regarding the material developed at Jefferson Lab have been licensed to a small start-up company, BNNT, LLC. The company is now manufacturing and offering for sale high-quality BNNTs for scientific investigation, application research and development, and commercial products. Several nuclear physics research and development projects are exploring how BNNTs can improve existing research devices, such as neutron detectors, ultra-high-vacuum cryopumps, and accelerator electron and proton beam position monitors. As of Jan 2016, the company has provided BNNTs to more than 450 researchers in 28 countries.