Imaging system uses neutron beams to analyse ancient objects

A new imaging system developed at the UK STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source research facility is being used by researchers to produce three-dimensional images of fragile items in order to reveal details about their structure without damaging them.

The instrument uses neutron beams to produce the images and is currently being used to examine ancient Egyptian artefacts and an old violin famed for its expert craftsmanship.

The new IMAT (imaging and materials science and engineering) instrument became officially operational on 10 October and offers a broad range of both imaging and diffraction applications, offering a flexibility that allows new types of experiments to be performed with a single instrument.

Some of the first objects to be examined with IMAT include ancient Egyptian vases made over 3,000 years ago and violins made by Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737), one of the greatest luthiers of all time. In the first case, using neutron beams, which have a high penetration power in metals, researchers are finding clues on the methods used by ancient Egyptians to make bronze vases. In the second case, researchers are using, tomography, thermal neutrons and neutron resonances at higher energies to provide more complete information on the inner structure and morphology of the violins.

‘The studies taking place today will provide important insights into our cultural heritage,’ said professor Robert McGreevy, director of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. ‘Longer term, we expect to see IMAT enable advances in a wide range of applications, from aerospace, civil engineering and power generation to earth science and agriculture.’

The development of IMAT was funded by a £4m investment from the UK Government’s Large Facilities Capital Fund. The instrument’s imaging systems were developed in collaboration with Italian scientists funded through the Italian CNR research council, and a group at the University of California, Berkeley, USA developed IMAT’s neutron detector.

‘We are delighted to be able to celebrate the inauguration of IMAT with our colleagues from CNR...’ said McGreevy. ‘Our partnership with Italy has brought extensive benefits not just to our two countries but the wider scientific community.’

Further Information:



Italian CNR research council 

University of California, Berkeley


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