20 years of neutrons for research, industry, and medicine

The FRM II research reactor at the TUM Campus Garching
The FRM II research reactor at the TUM Campus Garching

Anniversary at the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz research neutron source at TUM

The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Research Neutron Source (FRM II) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Since its commissioning on 2 March 2004, the FRM II has played a key role internationally in providing neutrons for research, industry, and medicine. To date, over 10,000 experiments have generated almost 5,000 scientific publications ranging from materials science, energy, quantum technologies, climate & environment, health & nutrition to mobility and archaeology.

Neutrons penetrate materials non-destructively and provide an insight into their interior. For example, the particles generated in the FRM II are used to develop safer and more durable batteries for e-mobility. Researchers also use neutrons to determine the structure of molecules. For example, scientists recently analyzed a promising vaccine candidate against multi-resistant germs.

Neutrons from Garching also play an essential role in producing radioisotopes for treating liver carcinomas and prostate cancer. The future production of molybdenum-99/technetium-99m for diagnosing cancer or cardiovascular diseases can cover a significant part of the European demand (approx. 9 million yearly examinations). Only seven reactors are currently available worldwide for medical care.

Industrial partners from a wide range of sectors use the neutrons from Garching, for example, to enable the production of more efficient gas turbines or to investigate the introduction of mRNA into the human body.

Politicians emphasize the importance of the large-scale research facility

Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger emphasized the importance of a reliable supply of neutrons for Germany as a research location: "Neutrons are essential for Germany as a research and industrial location, as many research and innovation projects depend on providing high-quality neutrons. The FRM II offers unique potential for German science. We, therefore, want to play a constructive role in ensuring that neutron research in Germany is made possible again by restarting the research reactor as soon as possible and converting it to low-enriched fuels in the medium term."

Bavaria’s State Chancellery Minister, Dr. Florian Herrmann, said: "For 20 years, the FRM II has been writing scientific history "Made in Bavaria" as one of the most modern research reactors in the world. The heart of German nuclear technology research beats here! The FRM II offers the widest range of applications of all neutron sources and is of inestimable value for science, industry, and medicine. Here in Garching, the FRM II is the world’s most effective neutron source, enabling the development of state-of-the-art radiopharmaceutical products for the fight against cancer and the production of high-quality semiconductor components and research into countless other scientific and medical fields. Bavaria is already a hotspot for nuclear technology research and will continue along the path of innovation and technological openness. Many thanks to the scientists at the FRM II, who have made the neutron source an indispensable icon for science and research."

Bavaria’s Science Minister Markus Blume said: "Outstanding research strength and ideology-free openness to technology: the FRM II is an outstanding symbol for Bavaria as a world-class science location! Research with neutrons provides key findings for existential issues of the future, from battery and materials research for the energy transition to vital medical research, such as in the case of mRNA vaccines. Garching is one of the most important locations worldwide for producing high-purity doped silicon for the semiconductor industry or power electronics in electric cars, which was previously only possible in reactors - an important factor for our independence from other countries. As an indispensable source of innovative strength, we want to operate the FRM II with the most advanced low-enriched fuel at the same power as before in the future. In this way, we are setting the next milestone in innovative nuclear technology in Bavaria - for a good and safe future!"

Maintaining expertise in nuclear fusion

"The FRM II is the most powerful neutron source in the world and, as such, is a scientific beacon on the map of Bavaria, Germany, and Europe," emphasizes Prof. Thomas F. Hofmann, President of TUM. "The unrivaled performance spectrum of the neutron source gives us the unique opportunity to understand phenomena on the atomic scale and thus gain new insights from which the development of future-oriented technological innovations can benefit significantly. And by training young talent at the FRM II, we are making an essential contribution to maintaining Germany’s expertise in the field of nuclear technology."

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics are using neutrons and positrons at the FRM II to search for heat-resistant materials for the walls of a future fusion reactor. Research into new materials is a particular focus of the FRM II, ranging from applications such as solar cells, electronic components, and properties for quantum computers to the optimization of machining processes in mechanical engineering - a key German discipline.

In 2013, TUM, Forschungszentrum Jülich, and Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon founded the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Zentrum (MLZ) for the scientific use of the research neutron source with the cooperation of the Max Planck Society and nine other universities. It is jointly funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts, and other cooperation partners. With around 30 different scientific instruments, the MLZ covers a broad spectrum of research fields.

The research neutron source is on a more extended maintenance break because the so-called central channel must be newly manufactured and replaced. As soon as this has been completed, the FRM II will once again supply neutrons for researchers, industrial customers, and medical applications.