One hurdle facing the team involved scaling up the size of the printed collimator while maintaining the accuracy of the finished product. A large collimator was needed to capture a higher number of neutrons scattering from the sample and the complex pressure cell chosen for the test. In a pressurized environment, the sample is encased within a nontransparent sample container, which causes a significant number of unwanted neutrons to scatter strongly in a way that can dominate the weaker data signal that scientists are searching for.

“To demonstrate the viability of using custom-built, 3D printed collimators, we decided to use a very small sample contained in a diamond anvil cell — a high-pressure chamber that uses diamonds to squeeze materials. Some of these cells are so complex and strong that they are capable of producing pressures approaching those at the center of the Earth,” said Bianca Haberl, the study’s corresponding author and a neutron scattering scientist at SNS. “In fact, high-pressure cells are some of the most complex environments used in neutron experiments, so it is a real challenge to filter out the huge amount of unwanted cell scatter they produce.”

The scientific principles for designing collimators are generally well understood, so the team’s first attempt at 3D printing a collimator for such a small sample involved simply scaling up the printed part size while retaining the continuous, front-to-back blades that form the channels. The binder jet 3D printer enabled printing the one-piece version at dimensions of about 12 by 9 by 9 inches, which maximized the capacity to steer neutrons to the detector while still fitting into the instrument.

Unfortunately, the complexities in scaling up the 3D printing process impaired the precision of the printed part to such a degree it was not suitable to use on the beamline.

“Simply scaling up the print as one large part with continuous blades was clearly not feasible without further optimizing the printing process,” said Garrett Granroth, a co-author and neutron scattering scientist at SNS. “A new concept was subsequently developed to print multiple smaller parts and then manually assemble them into a complete collimator. The main reason for using smaller pieces is that the cracking observed in the single-part design was primarily due to variations in the material’s contraction rate during the curing and cooling process. By reducing their overall size, the individual parts cooled more uniformly.”

An alternate-blade design with progressively tighter blades, from the end facing the sample to the end facing the detector, was used instead. This configuration allowed for a higher density of blades with reduced channel sizes and avoided some size-related 3D printing limitations. By ensuring the blades did not cross a boundary between the individual parts, the design was less sensitive to misalignment between the pieces during assembly. 

Employing this approach, the team optimized the collimator performance by simulating the entire experiment using advanced computational methods developed for the project. The simulation produced a design that could go directly to production without additional engineering.

The 3D printed, alternate-blade collimator was assessed for performance on SNAP, the Spallation Neutron and Pressure beamline, a dedicated high-pressure neutron diffractometer. Experiments revealed an extreme sensitivity to the collimator’s alignment, emphasizing the necessity for ultrahigh precision in collimator manufacturing and positioning on the beamline.

Once the collimator was precisely aligned, it enabled the desired increase in the relative sample signal over the cell scatter, proving the concept. The scientists also identified areas for future refinement, including further enhancements through more stringent manufacturing quality control and improved alignment. By combining modeling and advanced manufacturing, the study identified a new means of customizing neutron scattering instrumentation and advancing neutron science.

SNS is a DOE Office of Science user facility. The MDF, supported by DOE’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office, is a nationwide consortium of collaborators working with ORNL to innovate, inspire and catalyze the transformation of U.S. manufacturing.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit — Paul Boisvert

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