In a surprising discovery, researchers determine that the atomic structure of irradiated materials is closer to liquid than glass — which may have significant implications for the selection of materials for nuclear applications

Materials exposed to neutron radiation tend to experience significant damage, leading to the containment challenges involved in immobilizing nuclear waste or nuclear plant confinements. At the nanoscale, these incident neutrons collide with a material’s atoms that, in turn, then collide with each other somewhat akin to billiards. The resulting disordered atomic network and its physical properties resemble those seen in some glassy materials, which has led many in the field to use them in nuclear research.

But the similarities between the materials may not be as useful as previously thought, according to new results reported this week in The Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP Publishing.

The disordered atomic networks of glassy substances result from vitrification, the transformation of a substance into glass by its melting and (typically) rapid subsequent cooling. During this cooling, or quenching, atoms don’t have time to settle in an organized way, and instead form a disordered atomic network. This led a group of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to explore the question: Do irradiation and vitrification have the same impact on the atomic structure of materials?

The full story, from the American Institute of Physics, is available here.

Image: Snapshot of the atomic structure of a partially irradiated quartz sample.
Image credit: N.M. Anoop Krishnan/UCLA