Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) and ESRF collaborate on space technologies

Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) and ESRF collaborate on space technologies
Space exploration has led to many societal benefits that have vastly improved quality of life on Earth

Professor Helmut Schober, director of the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) discusses a new partnership between the ILL and the ESRF and leading European space companies to tackle industry challenges.

The Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) have recently announced that they are teaming up with leading European space companies OHB System AG and MT Aerospace AG to tackle industry challenges. They join forces to advance the characterisation of aerospace materials and make fabrication processes more efficient by probing matter with X-rays and neutrons.

Space exploration has led to many societal benefits that have vastly improved quality of life on Earth. The first satellites contributed critical knowledge and capabilities for telecommunications, global positioning, and advances in weather forecasting. Successful space exploration encompasses a broad range of missions requiring advanced systems and capabilities that will accelerate the development of many critical technologies, including advanced materials and structural concepts. Research innovating the materials behind space technologies as well as their manufacturing methods will pave the way for more successful space missions and applications for use on Earth. In 2016, the global space economy totalled €296bn worldwide; developing innovative technologies is key to ensuring Europe continues to play an important role in this global and highly competitive sector.

Pooling European science and engineering resources for industry, across research techniques, is critical for innovation in space research, technology and its applications, and this ethos is echoed in an agreement signed by the ILL and ESRF.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between all Parties, to express their intention to establish potential collaborations in the field of advanced characterisation of aerospace materials and fabrication processes for peaceful means, in areas mutually agreed.

Speaking to SciTech Europa, the Institut Laue-Langevin’s director, Professor Helmut Schober, explained why this agreement is so important and discussed how industry will benefit.

Pooling European science and engineering resources for industry, across research techniques, is critical for innovation in space research, technology and its applications. What is the role of the ILL and ESRF in this?

Indeed, in order to remain competitive in a highly technological field it is of prime interest to pool all possible resources. Europe possesses excellent boundary conditions and we have the undisputed lead when it comes to high-end materials characterisation. In particular, the extensive network of large-scale X-ray and neutron sources that allows researchers to probe materials with the highest precision over basically all length scales, from the sub-atomic details to the macroscopic properties, is second to none in the world. Europe equally has one of the best technologically developed industrial sectors. As the respective flagships in their fields, ILL and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) have a particular responsibility to establish strong links with this sector. We do so by tailoring specific services to the needs of industry and in particular space research and technology.

Building on this, how important is the agreement signed by the ILL and the ESRF, establishing the intent to collaborate with leading European space companies OHB System AG and MT Aerospace AG?

Given the obvious benefits of pooling materials research and technology one would guess that European large-scale infrastructures and European high-tech industries are already deeply intertwined. The fact is, however, that large-scale infrastructures are primarily used by academic institutions rather than by industry.

In order to fully unlock the potential for innovation with this tremendous asset, we have to raise more awareness and lower the barriers to use. The best way to do so is by creating and highlighting direct impact via concrete applications. With OHB System and MT Aerospace we have over the last months identified precise components, like valves or tank structures in rockets and electronic components and circuit boards in satellites, that will profit from the non-destructive investigations that neutrons and X-rays offer.

Just as an example, non-destructive in-situ measurements at the Institut Laue-Langevin enable the stress level of a material to be determined under the various load conditions of temperature, statics, dynamics and acoustics that occur during a rocket launch and during deployment in space. Knowing this stress level under those conditions will in turn help to optimise material choice and manufacturing processes.

With the pioneering case studies that we are developing with our partners, we hope to lay the foundations for an extensive and long-lasting collaboration for the benefit of the whole European industrial sector.

How will the progress enabled by the Institut Laue-Langevin complement that which is offered by the ESRF?

While both neutrons and X-rays are non-destructive, they have very distinct properties. Neutrons interact with the nuclei and magnetic moments of unpaired electrons while X-rays interact with the electrons of a material, making them excellent complementary techniques. Neutrons are ideal for determining the position of light elements like hydrogen or lithium. They equally have a very high penetration power even though they possess rather low energies.

X-ray beams at modern synchrotrons and, in particular the ESRF, also reach spectacular brilliance, so these methods allow us to study the structure of all kinds of materials with unprecedented attention to detail. In modern materials research it is important to use the best possible tool for the investigation under consideration. ILL and ESRF together provide an impressive tool kit for this, located on a single site.

What will the biggest benefits to the industry players be from this collaboration?

It is a highly competitive market so it is essential to permanently look for margins of improvement in concepts, systems and processes. We want lighter materials that can withstand rougher environments. We want to produce these materials with higher assurance of their quality and via the most efficient process. For all these reasons, it is essential to possess the best possible characterisation of the materials over all their relevant length scales.

With this new collaboration, we will show how the material characterisation provided by neutrons and X-rays helps industry to identify any relevant margins of improvement and thus will go onto increase the competitiveness of our industrial partners.

In a wider sense, do you feel that enough is being done to foster this kind of collaborative approach in Europe? Would you agree that more emphasis needs to be placed on the commercialisation of research results within Europe?

In order to solve the challenges of the future we will need more and better technology. We know from past experiences that there is no better road to better technology than excellent science.

Europe has tremendous scientific and technological assets, and to fully exploit these assets we have to make sure that science feeds seamlessly into the technology sector. But emphasising this need is not enough. What we need is practical solutions, such as fast and efficient ways of launching collaborations between these two sectors, taking into account all the important issues like intellectual property and non-distortion of competition, for example.

Europe has a large number of public funding schemes and many of them target innovation. Can we improve on these schemes? My answer would definitely be ‘yes’. What we need is a fast and non-bureaucratic one-stop access to funding that supports pioneering case studies in order to develop sustainable business models, like the one that we pursue with OHB System and MT Aerospace in this collaboration.


Professor Helmut Schober


Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL)

Tweet @ILLGrenoble

This article will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 28, which will be published in September, 2018.

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