Neutrons for Science. A film for the Institut Laue-Langevin

Operating for over 40 years, the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France is one of the most successful research centres in the world for materials science and one of Europe’s most longstanding and successful collaborations.

With thousands of visitors every year, the ILL wanted to create an informal but engaging overview film to be shown to visitors in the on-site cinema before they would be taken on a tour of the different areas of the research centre.

Making the film

The experimental areas inside the ILL are an astonishing and colourful assembly of high-tech gear, pipes, cables, surrounded by enclosures to keep people out of the experiments while they are running. The contrast with the mountains, meadows and city outside couldn’t be greater.

The brief from the client was to include four different research topics, and also to include key messages and facts about the institute.

The client asked for a film that ‘felt French’ and would be in a style familiar to the majority of the audience visiting the ILL. We decided to avoid using stock library footage,  animation or VFX and aim for a style similar to programmes made for the Arte channel. These restrictions freed us from the temptation to try to explain every single thing that is happening at the ILL.

I wrote the script to focus on the people working at the ILL, rather than the scientific topics directly. This allows the audience to have a greater engagement with the science they hear, and to avoid the feeling that they are back in a classroom to learn science. The characters in the film share the stories of their research, its relevance to modern life, and their passions as they work to discover new knowledge.

The script interweaves the research stories with the main narrative of the ILL which is represented by the ILL director Andrew Harrison. The first scenes act as a bridge from the familiar outside world to the unfamiliar inside world and uses the characters from the research stories to explain why they go to work at the ILL every day.

To separate the more formal ILL narrative from the case studies, scenes in which the ILL director Andrew Harrison appears were always shot from a tripod. Characters in the research story scenes were shot with movement wherever possible, either handheld or using a slider or something else, to emphasise that we are observing them in their working environment.

About the film

Filmed on location at:

  • Institut Laue-Langevin, Grenoble
  • Grenoble City
  • The Bastille, Grenoble

December 2012 & February 2013

Director: Martyn Bull
Writer: Martyn Bull
Producer: Thomas Delfs
Executive Producer: Jim Sutton
Director of Photography: Mark Whatmore
Editors: Liam Angell, Mike Willbourne, Irene Bonilla
Composer: Ram Khatabakhsh

Cast: Andrew Harrison, Giovanna Fragneto, Isabelle Grillo, Ulli Koester, Jacques Ollivier, Rafik Ballou, Julian Eastoe

Production companies: insitu and Proof Communication
Client: Institut Laue-Langevin, Grenoble, France

Camera: RED Epic 4K


Ulli: Science is an important part of general culture.

Giovanna: Every day is a discovery, every day you learn new things.

Rafik: I got interested in science because I was always curious about all the wonders of the world.

Isabelle: We are an international group of scientists working at the ILL on different instruments and we have different fields of research.

Andrew: It’s only a short journey for me across town to come to work but, every month, hundreds of scientists come from countries all across the world to Grenoble to the Institut Laue-Langevin to do experiments.

The research we do here impacts across all of modern life. We can get unique information that’s essential to solving some of the major challenges of our time. We are constantly improving our understanding of how the world works. That’s why you’ll find chemists, biologists, engineers, specialists in magnetism and nuclear physics, medical researchers working side by side, sharing their discoveries and knowledge.

Julian: As a chemist, I’m interested in the way in which molecules interact together to form clusters or particles. These particles are about 1 millionth of a millimetre in size, so they cannot really be seen by a normal light microscope.

Isabelle: Neutrons are a perfect tool to investigate the shape, the size and also the interaction between particles.

Julian: We came up with the idea for our newest invention on a drive from Bristol down to Grenoble.  The new invention was magnetic soap. Normal soaps work because they have two different parts, one is soluble in water and the other is insoluble in water but is in fact soluble in oily substances or dirt. In inventing the magnetic soap, what we have done is to replace the normal water soluble part with one which is now also magnetic.

Isabelle: In two days for example it’s possible to measure at least 200 samples. So that means that people have to work all day and night.

Julian: We know we’re going to be doing some exciting experiments and we’re going to be working at the cutting edge for the 2 or 3 days that we are down here. It is always very exciting.

Isabelle: After the experiment comes the interesting part which is the writing of the paper, that’s where we share what we have learnt from an experiment and we share it to the scientific community.

Julian: Since we invented magnetic soap there have been many, many ideas for how we would use this, we’ve been contacted by many different industries. Most likely applications will be in environmental clean up, separation of oils and also minerals from slurries.

Andrew: Everything is made of atoms. The air you breathe, the food you eat, the mountains, the rivers, the cats, the dogs, computers, cars. Absolutely everything is made of atoms. The universe is full of trillions and trillions of atoms and atoms are tiny, you could fit a million of them in a speck of dust or 100,000 across the width of a human hair. At the ILL we use beams of neutrons to look inside this tiny world and then connect it to the world of everyday experience.

In neutron scattering experiments, materials are exposed to intense beams of neutrons inside our unique novel instruments. By measuring how the neutrons change direction and speed when they pass through the material we can work out where the atoms are and how they move. The images we collect reveal the molecular structure and motion inside the material which can then be directly related to the physical and chemical properties of the material in the everyday world.

Jacques: In everyday life we are using a lot of artificial materials, among these materials we have magnetic materials.

Rafik: Magnetic materials are really important for our society, they are used in a universal way, you can find them in cars, in your house, even in your cellular phone.

Jacques: You can find examples of such materials in the head of the hard drive, they can be used for storage of information, they can be even used for calculation in quantum computer.

Jacques: Magnetic materials are made of assembly of atomic magnets, the neutrons are very sensitive to the  atomic magnet, they can probe how they are arranged, how they move and we can probe their response to external parameters such as temperature.

Rafik: What I try to do is to find new materials. You can produce interesting properties that might be of potential use for applications.

Jacques: We have fantastic instruments to see the fundamental things that happen at the atomic level, which is fantastic I think.

Andrew: The ILL is one of Europe’s most longstanding and successful collaborations. France and Germany founded Institut Laue-Langevin, the ILL, in 1967. The UK joined a few years later. The institute is named after two famous scientists: Paul Langevin from France and Max von Laue from Germany. Since those early days 12 more countries have joined as scientific members.

Neutrons are everywhere in nature. Together with electrons and protons they make up the atoms that are the basic building blocks of all the materials in the world. Neutrons are tightly bound with protons in the nucleus, in the middle of the atom.

In a nuclear reactor like the one here at ILL atoms can be made to split apart and release the neutrons. It’s a process called nuclear fission.

From this control room the reactor can be started and stopped. Nuclear reactors are usually used to make electricity. This reactor is a low power reactor used to make enormous numbers of neutrons for experiments. The reactor has very low power compared to a power station, just 58 megawatts. It’s a very clean and safe way to make neutrons for science.

The buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters and to prevent radiation from accidentally escaping. A network of monitoring stations in the surrounding area keeps watch to ensure there are no emissions.

Ulli: I’m a physicist at ILL and I’m taking care of production of radioisotopes for nuclear medicine. Radioisotopes have important applications, for example treatment of cancer therefore ILL decided recently to start this new activity which was not in action when ILL was created and now with the high neutron flags we can produce big amounts of high quality radioisotopes for medicine

So the radioisotope is not used directly in the patient but is linked with a biomolecule that acts as a carrier and this biomolecule is very specific, it can identify individual cancer cells of a certain type in a patient’s body and it will carry its radioactive payload to the cancer cell, hook up and then stay there until the radioisotope decays and destroys or damages the cancer cell.

So we produce for example Lutetium 177, which is the gold standard therapy isotope in nuclear medicine today. It is irradiated here and then shipped to a radiochemical or radiopharmaceutical lab and then they will send out individual patient doses to hospitals all over the world.

Andrew: ILL runs all through the day and all through the night. It takes about 500 people to run this research centre and they have a tremendous diversity of skills. We need nuclear engineers and technicians to run the reactor, but we also need people to design and build the instruments and sample environment for the experiments, we need biologists to grow protein, we need software developers and IT specialists to manage and visualise the data, we need crane drivers, we need electricians, plumbers and many, many more.

Giovanna: I’m senior fellow at the ILL, I’ve been working on our cell membranes for the last 15 years.

Cell membranes occupy a very large part of our body and they are essential for life. There are many diseases related to modifications of the structure of cell membranes like Alzheimer’s disease, and other modern diseases like Diabetes or Parkinson’s.

Neutrons are a very powerful tool to look for the cell membranes because they can study the relevant sizes of membranes, in particular the thickness of a membrane.

Cholesterol is widespread in the body and in particular mainly it is inside cell membranes but it circulates also in our bloodstream. It has been found recently that the amount of cholesterol in the brain may be related to the formation of amyloid peptide domains, so it is extremely important to understand the role of cholesterol and the structure of these domains to try to have better understanding of the causes of deformation and the causes of the Alzheimer’s disease.

Andrew: Training the next generation of scientists is also crucial. 40% of the people who come to the ILL are PhD students or post doctorate researchers in the first stages of their career. Our education and public outreach activity is aimed to inspire schoolchildren to follow a career in science.

Ulli: ILL is great because it’s very international, we have the most powerful neutron source in the world at hand and to develop new things and to be always at the forefront of science.

Jacques: Our role is important for society, for the future of society.

Julian: Science is the way by which we understand our world and how we can use the natural resources in it to improve the quality of life for everyone.

Giovanna: I find it really nice to work here.

Jacques: We are close to mountains, I love mountains.

Andrew: I’m very proud to be the director. The ILL operates the world’s leading centre for neutron science, we have a global reputation, every day we make scientific discoveries and those discoveries connect with real everyday life.

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