Phoenix’s Neutron Radiography Lab

Phoenix’s state-of-the-art Materials Testing Lab uses neutron radiography to uncover the composition, characterization & capabilities of your materials.

What is Materials Testing?

Materials testing is a critical method for engineers and manufacturers for product design, reverse engineering, quality assurance, and failure analysis. Understanding how certain materials behave and interact in a wide range of circumstances is the key to developing stronger and better materials and utilizing them properly. Nondestructive materials testing is of vital importance, especially in aerospace, defense, transit, and other industries where the costs of unforeseen failure are high. For manufacturers in these industries, access to a materials testing lab is essential.

Some methods of materials testing involve dismantling or otherwise damaging the material in question. These methods are not always the most suitable ones to use, especially when conducting important analyses on low-volume, high-cost products. For this reason, nondestructive testing, or NDT, is one of the most critical forms of materials testing in many industries. NDT involves using any number of a wide variety of analytical techniques to evaluate the properties of a material or component without damaging it or dismantling it in a way such that it cannot be put back together. Because the process of NDT does not involve the sacrifice of a produced material, it is a cost- and time-saving method of materials testing.

Many analytical techniques come into play for industrial nondestructive testing, such as liquid penetrant testing using oil or other substances, ultrasonic testing, and X-ray and neutron radiography. Radiographic testing is particularly useful for exploring the interior of an object without breaking or disassembling it. Different types of radiation penetrate materials differently; some easily pass through light materials, and others more easily penetrate denser materials.

About Phoenix’s Materials Testing Lab

Phoenix’s high-throughput neutron generators make neutron radiography, or N-ray, more accessible to manufacturers, engineers, and nondestructive testing professionals in industries ranging from aerospace to healthcare.

N-ray is one form of radiographic imaging that is particularly useful for metals, composites, polymers, energetic material, and other components or products, especially those which require rigorous quality assurance.

Neutron radiation is generated by nuclear fusion or fission, which can be facilitated either through uranium-fueled fission reactors or accelerator-based neutron generators. This radiation can be used for materials testing. Unlike X-rays, neutrons pass through dense materials and stop at light materials, so when neutron radiation is shot at an object, the neutrons which pass through it form an image of the object’s interior.

Nuclear reactors are difficult to use for nondestructive materials testing due to lack of accessibility stemming from their size, the radioactive materials produced through fission, heavy regulatory burdens, etc. However, accelerator-based neutron generators have far fewer constraints due to their compact size and fewer associated regulatory issues.
Phoenix’s neutron generators produce enough neutrons to create images which meet the highest quality requirements and standards laid out by ASTM International. A single generator can duplicate the radiographic output of a reactor, while also being easier and safer to operate. Accelerators produce no nuclear waste material and can be operated by a single trained worker using a simple interface. In addition to neutron imaging, Phoenix’s neutron generators can also be applied toward many other practical applications of neutrons for materials testing and other fields, such as neutron irradiation.

Phoenix’s neutron generators can be built-to-order and installed onsite, giving you a materials testing lab in your own facility that can be operated from a simple interface by a single trained operative. We’re also constructing a facility to provide neutron imaging as a service, which will make N-ray far more accessible to materials testing professionals and manufacturers.

Industrial Neutron Radiography and Materials Testing

X-ray and industrial computed tomography (CT) are powerful and commonly used techniques in any materials testing laboratory, but components with a dense material forming their outer layers can prove difficult to analyze through these methods alone. N-ray, on the other hand, penetrates dense materials easily to create detailed images of their inner workings, making it essential for comprehensive radiographic testing.

N-ray is a powerful tool for NDT in…

  • Composite materials and polymers development
  • Lab testing for prototypes
  • Materials failure analysis and QA
  • Weld integrity tests
  • Concrete inspection
  • Radiation hardening and survivability testing
  • Energetic materials testing
  • Nuclear fuel testing and inspection

Rapid Prototyping

Before the advent of industrial 3D printing and additive manufacturing, prototyping was a lengthy process. New technology allows prototypes to be made quickly and easily, reducing the time it takes to develop new products and encouraging experimentation.

Before a prototype can become a full-fledged product, extensive materials testing is required to sort out any issues with the design. N-ray is a useful tool for sussing out the issues with 3D-printed material, especially composite materials.

Failure Analysis

Due to a current lack of accessibility (which Phoenix is changing through our advances in compact, simple-to-operate neutron generators), N-ray is seldom used for quality assurance, but plays an important role in failure analysis.

When products fail, manufacturers must turn to comprehensive materials testing to determine if any flaws were overlooked in the product’s design or if any unforeseen issues have cropped up over the course of the product’s lifespan.

One aspect of neutron radiography that makes it such a powerful method for materials testing and failure analysis is the way certain elements, such as gadolinium, react to it. By “tagging” an object with liquid gadolinium, which has a high neutron cross section, flaws in the object such as corrosion, cracks, and other failures that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to see will show up in stark contrast on the neutron image.

Weld Analysis

In an object with two or more parts welded together, the connecting points undergo a lot of stress and fatigue. If the welds holding the object together are not sound, the object could break apart under the strain. Materials inspection, both by destructive and nondestructive methods, is crucial to ascertain that the welds in an object are strong enough to stand up to the demands of use.

Radiographic testing is a powerful method for weld inspection and analysis, and the unique properties of neutron radiation allow N-ray to pick up crucial details that might otherwise be missed.

Concrete Inspection

There are a wide variety of materials testing methods, nondestructive and otherwise, that are applied to concrete testing and inspection. The strength and integrity of concrete can be difficult to test through common means of materials testing due to its heterogeneous makeup.

Radiography can effectively measure density and detect some structural flaws in concrete, and among the several types of radiography, N-ray’s unique properties over X-ray and gamma ray imaging make it a useful tool for concrete inspection.

Energetics/Pyrotechnics Inspection and Detection

N-ray is particularly useful when inspecting energetic and explosive devices from airbag inflators and explosive signal transmission systems to bombs and munitions. These devices consist of a dense metal shell encasing a chemical propellant. While the density of the outer layer proves problematic to other forms of industrial radiography, neutrons pass through the metal to create an image of the chemical within.

If the chemical propellant undergoes any unexpected changes in its makeup, its behavior could become unpredictable. Issues with the chemical makeup of an energetic device’s propellant show up as bubbles, cracks, voids, or other anomalies within the material. An N-ray can show these anomalies.

Radiation Hardening and Survivability Testing

In the aerospace industry, many components, especially electronics, must be specially designed to experience high-radiation environments such as space. Neutrons are especially useful for this area of materials testing. Bombarding components with neutrons simulates these environmental conditions and allows manufacturers to gauge how well their products meet their requirements when used in spacecraft and satellites.

Nuclear Fuel Inspection

Uranium fuel rods used in nuclear reactors must conform to strict quality standards before being put to use. A fuel rod contains pellets of fissile uranium. The distribution of uranium within the rod must be uniform, otherwise the rod could behave erratically within the reactor. Of course, not everything that comes off an assembly line comes out perfect, so thorough radiographic testing for any broken or misshapen pellets is vital.

While nuclear fuel rods cannot be imaged via the exact same methods as other materials, neutrons play an important role in inspecting them due to the way uranium reacts to them. By measuring the excitability of the pellets of uranium within the rods, a neutron-based nuclear fuel inspection system can detect gaps and other issues that would render the rods unsuitable for use.

Materials Testing Laboratory Services

Phoenix designs and constructs made-to-order neutron generators and installs them directly into their facility. Our products give our clients an in-house, easily accessible way to use neutron imaging at their convenience. One of the first high-yield neutron generators we shipped off was funded by a contract with the US Army and designed to be installed in a munitions factory for quality assurance testing.

This is not a feasible solution, though, if you don’t need to use N-ray constantly or consistently in your facility. For example, manufacturers of jet engine turbine blades stand to benefit from having a neutron generator of their own because every single blade that comes off their assembly line must be rigorously tested to make sure there are no flaws that could cause it to break or melt while in use. However, for manufacturers and materials testers who don’t need to use neutron imaging so frequently, such a heavy investment offers few benefits.

We make neutron generators that are well-suited to thermal and fast neutron imaging. Thermal imaging uses low-energy neutrons and is especially useful for creating detailed, high-resolution images of small parts, whereas fast neutron imaging uses high-energy neutrons to image larger objects.

If you rarely rely on neutron imaging as a tool for materials testing or have never used it before, our new offering of N-ray as a service is the solution for you.

When PNIC opens for business later in 2019, the facility will offer N-ray along with X-ray and CT imaging, making it a one-stop solution for all your industrial radiography needs. Phoenix is one of the industry leaders working to fuse N-ray and X-ray radiographic data for more comprehensive materials testing results.

Benefits of PNIC:

  • One-stop location for X-ray and neutron radiographic materials testing
  • Convenient radiographic testing for clients who only need neutron radiography done sparingly
  • Perfect opportunity for materials testing professionals to discover the utility of neutron radiography without a prohibitive up-front commitment to resources and equipment.

PNIC will be open for business in 2019.

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