A Pounds 10 million collaboration that allows Japanese researchers access to one of Europe's most advanced scientific instruments could be followed later this decade by a machine for determining the fundamental properties of materials.
This month Riken, the Japanese Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, opened its Muon Science Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.
The machine is attached to ISIS, which the RAL boasts is the world's most powerful source of neutrons for probing the detailed composition of matter.
It uses ISIS to generate a flow of heavier particles, called muons. These can be used to study magnetic materials such as high-temperature semiconductors, because their passage through matter is affected by magnetic fields. They can also be used for non-destructive testing of almost all solid and liquid materials including biological substances.
It is also possible that muons provide a new route to energy production by nuclear fusion. They might also be used to catalyse nuclear fusion, avoiding the huge temperatures and energies of the fusion reactors now being planned. Work on a massive new magnet for the muon catalysis work at ISIS is due to begin this month.
Paul Williams, chief executive of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, of which RAL is part, said that a quarter of the time on ISIS is devoted to collaborators from Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy.
The possible new instrument for ISIS would be called GEM, or the General Materials Diffractometer, and would work by observing the patterns formed by the passage of neutrons through materials. Riken is among a number of possible collaborators in GEM. Earlier collaborations with RAL make it one of the more likely contributors.
The potential of neutrons and muons for observing changes in matter has attracted the attention of biologists and chemists. Applications include analyses of how surfaces work, such as watching how detergents remove dirt from surfaces, or determining the concentrations of different chemical elements, such as the decline in calcium in the bones of people suffering from osteoporosis.