“An Emerging National Neutron Strategy in Canada”

McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR)
McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR) (Photo by McMaster University)

On December 15 and 16, 2020, leading scientists from across Canada gathered virtually to shape this “national neutron strategy” at a round-table organized by the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI)and CIFAR, with support from the European Spallation Source and the Fedoruk Centre.

A brief news item can be found at: https://fedorukcentre.ca/documents/resources/cni/an-emerging-national-neutron-strategy-in-canada.pdf

“Neutrons Canada” meeting report available

On 2020 January 29, the Vice Presidents of Research or their designates from 16 Canadian universities met in Ottawa to discuss a proposed new pan-Canadian, university-led framework to manage Canada’s infrastructure, international partnerships, projects, and programs for materials research with neutron beams.

CINS is pleased to announce that a 21-page, fulsome report of the meeting is now available for download here:

The report builds on the consensus of the meeting that Canada should maintain its leadership role in materials research with neutron beams. It has an extensive list of policy resources, and discussion of example strategic roadmaps from Europe and elsewhere.

Europe leans in to help establish Neutrons Canada

On January 29, Fifteen senior executives of Canada’s research universities met in Ottawa with Dr Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, and several of our European colleagues to discuss how to establish a new cross-Canadian university-led organization to manage Canada’s infrastructure for materials research with neutron beams.

BrightnESS², the European Union-funded project within the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, wrote a report of the meeting, which included John Womersley, ESS Director General, and ILL Director Helmut Schober.

Parliamentary Committee Recommends Implementation of the Canadian Neutron Initiative

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance (FINA)  recommended, in its December 10, 2018 report, that the Government of Canada “Support the pan-Canadian, university-led Canadian Neutron Initiative to ensure that Canada maintains our place among leaders in materials research in priority areas, such as producing and storing clean energy, growing the economy through advanced manufacturing and clean technologies, and promoting health through biomedical and life sciences.” 
The report, entitled Cultivating Competitiveness: Helping Canadians Succeed, is the culmination of the Committee’s consultations for the 2019 budget. 

The recommendation to implement the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) is part of a series of recommendations to “stimulate research and development.” The recommendation follows the submission of the CNI Working Group, which asked for an allocation of “$24M of new funding in Budget 2019, and $100M over five years, starting in 2021‐22, to the Canada Foundation for Innovation to establish, via the Canadian Neutron Initiative, a pan‐Canadian,university‐led framework for materials research and innovation with neutron beams.” 

The brief to the CNI as presented to FINA in 2018 and in 2017 are available from the CNI resource page.

New user facilities at McMaster University provide access to neutron beams for materials research and education

Researchers from across Canada are now making use of the emerging neutron beam user program at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor to train students and acquire new knowledge about materials. 
Continue reading New user facilities at McMaster University provide access to neutron beams for materials research and education

Highlights from the CINS meeting in Windsor

Science talks showing the range of research applications of neutron beams, from Alzheimer’s disease to rock formation, and intense discussion of the neutron beam community’s future are among the highlights from the CINS meeting at the University of Windsor.
Continue reading Highlights from the CINS meeting in Windsor

Update on the Canadian Neutron Initiative and the “Neutrons@Mac” meeting

The gathering of researchers at McMaster University on May 17 was highly productive, and well attended with approximately 40 people in person and online, representing 12 universities from 4 provinces.

A key outcome was the statement of continued support for the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI), which follows below. In the subsequent online survey, CINS members were 80.5% in favour of the statement.

Although the CNI was not funded in the 2018 federal budget, we can build on the CNI’s momentum to realize the goal of establishing a new framework for leadership, management and funding of Canada’s capacity for materials research with neutron beams.

The statement also reflects two constructive ideas for moving forward:

First, CINS members wish to assist the CNI with securing some of the funds required for CNI’s 10-year vision through a multi-institutional CFI Innovation Fund application. This would for equipment to be located at foreign partner neutron sources and at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor.  An initial committee of CINS members representing McMaster, McGill, U. Toronto, and U. Winnipeg was struck to explore this idea further.

Second, there was strong agreement that all efforts toward the future need to be unified and pan-Canadian. There should be a single governance structure, representing multiple universities, for the future neutron beam program for Canada so that all activities will be coordinated. This includes the coordination of CNI’s efforts in Ottawa and at the provincial levels, the emerging neutron beam facilities at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor, and a CFI Innovation Fund application. With 16 supporting institutions from across Canada, the CNI working group is best positioned to determine the appropriate governance structure and to establish the needed multi-university organization. We have invited the CNI working group to undertake this critical task as a next step.

CINS Statement of Renewed Support for the Canadian Neutron Initiative Working Group (CNI)

Canada has been a world leader in neutron scattering for 70 years, since the pioneering Nobel-prize winning work of Bertram Brockhouse in the early 1950’s. Today, Canadian scientists use neutron beams for a wide range of applications, from understanding quantum materials to determining reliability of car engine parts.

In light of the loss of Canada’s major neutron source, the wind down of the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre, and the expiry of special access for Canadians at the Spallation Neutron Source in the USA, we remain committed to strive for a university-based, national program to maintain and expand the scientific resources Canada needs for materials research using neutron beams.

We strongly believe that at this critical moment, the continued leadership of the CNI is needed.

As it stands, Canada is now alone among developed nations without either a neutron beam laboratory, or formal arrangements for access to one, a situation which is embarrassing and intolerable.

Since 1986, CINS has advocated for Canadian capability for materials research using neutron beams. We see a future in which a broad base of Canadian scientists conduct their research using domestic and foreign facilities, train highly qualified people, and contribute to global advances in neutron beam techniques and instrument development. To achieve these goals, we must:

  1. Invest in scientific partnerships with foreign neutron beam laboratories, to secure sufficient beam time to meet Canadian needs for applications that require the brightest sources of neutrons.
  2. Upgrade the neutron beam capabilities of the McMaster Nuclear Reactor, our best remaining source for neutron beams in Canada, for a range of high demand capabilities that can be conducted at a medium-flux neutron source.
  3. Establish a domestic hub that facilitates access to neutron beam facilities for specialist, non-specialist, and new users alike, builds expertise and capabilities, keeping us at the forefront of research and technological development, and acts as the administrative centre for the national program.

We also need to make the science case for a major contribution to a new high-flux neutron source for the long-term, thereby re-establishing our position of leadership in the international community.

The Canadian Neutron Initiative is a plan to establish a new framework for leadership, management and funding of Canada’s capacity for materials research with neutron beams, building on existing national and international resources.

Our priorities are well aligned with the CNI’s efforts, and we appreciate and approve of the efforts that the CNI has put forward thus far. The CNI has received support from 16 organizations, and raised awareness of the need for a new framework with funding agencies and government decision-makers. The CNI has the necessary momentum and expertise to push forward and establish the needed national program constituted by a new university-based organization.

As representatives of the research community, we commit to supporting the CNI effort in any way possible. We foresee participating in competitions for funds that could be used to partially advance one or more of the above priorities, adding to the resources on which the CNI can build a holistic national program. We regard such efforts as a contribution to, rather than competition with, the CNI.

We propose that CINS work towards a multi-university, multi-disciplinary proposal for the next CFI Innovation Fund, which would be a significant contribution to the CNI’s decadal vision. CINS will invite universities to join the CNI working group, thereby ensuring coordination of efforts, further uniting our community and strengthening the governance of the CNI and of the university-based organization that emerges from it. We request the CNI help establish as appropriate governance structure for the future of neutron scattering for Canada.

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor visits the world’s brightest source of neutrons

Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, visited the Institut Laue-Langevin in Genoble, France, on May 18. As proposed by the Canadian Neutron Initiative, Canada needs to forge partnerships with foreign facilities following the closure of its domestic source of neutrons at Chalk River, Ontario on March 31, 2018.  Continue reading Canada’s Chief Science Advisor visits the world’s brightest source of neutrons

Video: Nemak Canada and U. Windsor researchers speak to CBC News about need for neutrons

Rob Mackay of Nemak Canada and Drew Marquardt of the University of Windsor speak to local CBC news about the impact of the closure of the NRU reactor in Chalk River. Researchers are looking for government action on the proposed Canadian Neutron Initiative as a way forward for alternate sources of neutrons.


Researchers in the industry and the education [system] are concerned with what they are going to do now that the Chalk River nuclear reasearch reactor has been shutdown. The reactor was shutdown at the end of march due to its age, but it was one of the few places in North America where researchers could use a neutron beam to study materials.

Researchers at the University of Windsor have been using these sub-atomic particles to better understand biological materials. Loss of the reactor could put research into how vitamin E works in jeopardy.

Drew Marquardt: “You can take a biological sample and measure it with neutrons, and not have destroyed your bacteria, or your model membrane. Whereas, if you use x-rays, i.e. light, those [have] high intensities that will destroy your sample.”

The beam also allowed researchers at Nemak Canada to study ways of making aluminum lighter and stronger for use in the auto industry. The metallurgical and heat treatment specialist at Nemak was part of a delegation that went to Ottawa recently to convince the government to replace that reactor.

Rob Mackay: “This is a unique capability that Canada has. There are very few places around the world that have this ability. And its going to help us stay leading edge going forward across many disciplines.

Mackay goes on to say that without the neutron beam tool it could make certain types of research more expensive or even impossible to do at all, and that could affect whether the research is funded. There is another reactor in Tennessee, but the agreement allowing Canadians to use it expires this year as well.

CBC Radio Windsor Morning interviews Drew Marquardt

Drew Marquardt (DM) was interviewed by Tony Doucette (TD) on CBC radio’s Windsor Morning, April 6, 2018. 

Listen to Audio: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/windsor-morning/segment/15535755

Editor’s note: CINS is not opposing the closure NRU reactor per se; rather, CINS is asking for a clear signal from government that it will provide what Canadian researchers need to make use of alternative facilities.


TD: A University of Windsor professor and researcher is adding his voice to the growing chorus of those opposed to the Chalk River nuclear reactor. That facility, which dates back to 1957 is famous for producing much of the world’s medical isotopes. And for the work of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Bertram Brockhouse. But lessor known, to the general public, is the important role the facility has played in research using neutron beams. And that’s where Windsor professor Drew Marquardt comes into the story. He’s made regular trips to Chalk River along with his students and part of his research. But with the reactor closing the 31st of March, he says future research by him and many others across the country is being threatened. Professor Drew Marquardt joins me in the studio. Good morning.

DM: Good morning.

TD: Let’s start with a rudimentary explanation of what a neutron beam is, and what a neutron beam can do.

DM: OK. Let’s start with where the neutrons come from. The neutrons are generated in the core of the reactor in Chalk River. And [through] little holes in the reactor, we are able to steal a few neutrons in order to bombard samples. And so, we siphon off these neutrons and we probe biological materials, [or] metals, for example, rail road track…

TD: Somewhat comparable to what we do with x-rays, right? A little more intense, or a little more… Well, I’ll let you explain.

DM: Exactly. So x-rays look at the electron cloud. Neutrons look at the nuclei. So they’re looking at different parts of the atom, which allow them to see different properties. I like to think of it as a kind of atomic microscope. So a traditional microscope you’re looking at cells or different cells interacting with each other… Large-scale in terms of the atom world. With neutrons, we’re actually looking at the interactions and the structures of the atoms in the material, so it’s like an atomic microscope.

TD: And Chalk River, I understand, is the only nuclear facility in the country that makes these available?

DM: Yes, McMaster University is building a single beamline to try to help alleviate the loss, but Chalk River was our major facility, yes.

TD: What kind of research were you doing there?

DM: During my graduate studies, I was examining the interaction of Vitamin E with cell membranes. Believe it or not, vitamin E is an essential nutrient, but we don’t know why it is essential. My research was looking at how vitamin E was interacting with these membranes in an effort to test whether it truly is an antioxidant in the body. And the outcomes of the research: we were able to put a mechanism together that does support that it’s an antioxidant, a preserver of our cell membranes. My research now has moved towards testing the theories: does vitamin E prevent or treat cancer? These are some theories that are out there, but a molecular mechanism and understanding is lacking yet.

TD: And do you need these neutron beams in order to continue with this research?

DM: Absolutely. So the sizes of the phenomenon that I’m examining are far below any kind of optical limit. I’m interested in the atom-atom interactions in the molecule and molecule-molecule interactions.

TD: So what will you do now?

DM: So there are sources abroad that we are able to visit, but there are hurdles again, travelling to a foreign nuclear facility.

TD: Well, let’s be clear. You physically had to travel to Chalk River in order to do this research.

DM: Oh absolutely. And that’s actually what made Chalk River such a great experience for myself as a student and for my students now. They got to go to this world-class facility and see these massive scientific instruments at work, and use them themselves

TD: It sounds to me like unless you can come up with a fair bit of money, this may have the potential to close down your research. Could it be that extreme?

DM. It could be that extreme. With the exchange of going to the States, it’s a lot of stress on a research budget. European facilities – aside from the cost of flying across the Atlantic – they give preference to member countries, and so Canada is not a paying member into any European facilities, which is a hurdle for Canadian researchers to go.

TD: What about the United States?

DM: The United States, we actually had an agreement with the Oak Ridge National Labs, where there would be a certain amount of beam time allocated Canadian researchers, but this agreement unfortunately has come to an end this year as well. And so, what the Canadian Neutron Initiative is looking to do is, bridge this gap, to help set up these relationships at other sources to help materials scientists like myself do their research.

TD: There are other nuclear facilities in this country. Might the solution lie in one or more of those?

DM: Unfortunately not. The power reactors operate at too high a temperature to be useful for studying materials. McMaster does have a small reactor on their campus to train their nuclear engineers, but it lacks the infrastructure to probe materials at any grand scale.

TD: Now beyond your own work and that of your students at the University of Windsor, what does the closure of that facility in Chalk River mean for the big picture, for this country’s role in scientific research?

DM: Canada’s been a leader in the filed for the last 70 years. You mentioned Brockhouse’s Nobel Prize. We’re on the verge of letting that leadership and legacy slip away, which is actually quite sad, because we have been at the forefront of materials science and neutron scattering.

TD: So what would you like to see? What would you like the government to do?

DM: The Canadian Neutron Initiative, the CNI – they have put together a cost-effective solution to help scientists like myself go to other facilities to continue their research. The details of this proposal can be found at cins.ca/cni. It lays out the framework of keeping a critical mass of expertise in Canada, and helping researchers like myself afford to travel abroad.

TD: How long have you been doing this research?

DM: Ten years.

TD: And now it is in jeopardy, in question? How would you characterize the situation you are in as we speak?

DM: It is definitely in question, and if we don’t soon get a clear signal, it could be definitely in jeopardy.

TD: Which would not be good news story for you and certainly not for your students either.

DM: No.

TD: I wish you well. I hope you find a solution.

DM: Well thank you very much.

TD: That’s Professor Drew Marquardt, a biochemist at the University of Windsor. His research includes the study of vitamin E and its effect on our own cells. And his work is threatened by the closure of the Chalk River nuclear reactor.