The Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) is a small nuclear reactor that was built in the French city of Grenoble in the late 1960s to provide a source of neutrons for global science. Today the ILL still provides one of the most intense neutron sources in the world, as scientists and engineers come from far and wide to use the facility.

This video provides you with an overview of the "vintage" technology at this facility, explaining how researchers use neutrons to study the fundamental properties of matter. "One of the key things you can do with neutrons is to explore the magnetic structures of materials," explains the institute's director Andrew Harrison. "I think it's fair to say that 90-odd per cent of all that we know at the atomic level about magnetic materials is derived from neutron scattering."

While the institute itself is more than 40 years old, the components have been changed and upgraded regularly over the years. "The average lifetime for which an instrument remains competitive and world class is about 10 or 15 years, so we're constantly upgrading," explains Harrison. "The latest wave of that started about 12 years ago – we've upgraded about two-thirds of our suite".

Unforgettable blue

Anyone who has visited the reactor at the ILL will tell you that one of the most memorable experiences is viewing the pool surrounding the reactor core, which glows a bright blue with Cerenkov radiation. The film takes you inside the reactor core to explain how neutrons are generated from nuclear reactions then harnessed for scientific experiments. ILL engineer and scientist Giuliana Manzin talks about the extensive work that has been carried out to ensure the safety of the facility, something that she is aware is firmly in the public consciousness since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.

Today at the ILL – which has recently secured its funding until 2023 – there is also a strong focus on the biosciences. "One of the things we're able to do now, for example, is simulate biological membranes through synthetic materials and look at the way small molecules or even viruses are absorbed through those artificial cell walls," says Harrison. "Through doing that we can devise ways to block the ingress of pathogens or viruses into materials."