PRESSEPORTAL Presseportal Logo
All Stories
Subscribe to Technische Universität München

27.03.2019 – 11:11

Technische Universität München

Toxic and aggressive, but widely used: Investigations with neutrons settle scientific dispute about the structure of fluorine


Corporate Communications Center

phone: +49 89 289 10510 - e-mail: - web:

This text on the web:

High resulution images:


Toxic and aggressive, but widely used

Investigations with neutrons settle scientific dispute about the structure of fluorine

In toothpaste, Teflon, LEDs and medications, it shows its sunny side - but elemental fluorine is extremely aggressive and highly toxic. Attempts to determine the crystal structure of solid fluorine using X-rays ended with explosions 50 years ago. A research team has now clarified the actual structure of the fluorine using neutrons from the Heinz Maier Leibnitz Research Neutron Source (FRM II).

Fluorine is the most reactive chemical element and highly toxic. It is nonetheless widely deployed. In the first attempt to determine the atomic distances of solid fluorine in 1968, a research team in the United States used X-rays. A difficult task, because fluorine only becomes solid at about minus 220 °C. And already cooling down the aggressive element resulted in explosions.

Nobel laureate Linus Pauling was sceptical about the results of the team and in 1970 proposed an alternative structural model - without delivering the experimental proof. For 50 years, no other chemist ventured to take on the delicate task.

Using neutrons from the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Research Neutron Source in Garching, scientists from the University of Marburg, the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the Aalto University in Finland have now finally elucidated the structure.

Neutrons - the ideal probes

Neutrons are particularly well suited for localizing fluorine atoms with high precision. Since they can penetrate even thick-walled sample containers, neutrons provided the method of choice for Professor Florian Kraus and his team in Marburg. They were supported in their investigations on the powder diffractometer SPODI at the FRM II by the TUM scientist Dr. Markus Hölzel and his colleagues.

For their investigations, the researchers implemented a special measuring setup to study fluorine at very low temperatures. To this end, they deployed materials that are particularly resistant to fluorine and ensure safe handling.

Application in LEDs, toothpaste and pharmaceuticals

"Extremely precise measurements with neutrons are important to facilitate calculations for a wide variety of applications," says Florian Kraus. "For other elements, high-precision crystal structures have been available for years. The crystal structure of oxygen, for example, has been investigated 35 times and carbon even 108 times."

But fluorine is also an essential part of everyday life. Among other things, fluorides are used as additives to toothpaste. They are used in LED bulbs to turn the cold LED light into a warm white. Fluorine compounds are also added to many pharmaceuticals to increase their effectiveness.

Neutron measurements confirm the suspicions of the Nobel Prize winner

Even though the results of the measurements from the 1960s were not precise, Florian Kraus was nonetheless quite surprised by the great difference: "Using neutron measurements, we were able to resolve the atomic distance 70 percent more accurately," says the chemist. "And the crystal structure shows that Nobel laureate Linus Pauling was spot on with his doubts."


The Crystal Structures of alpha- and beta-F2 revisited

Sergei I. Ivlev, Antti J. Karttunen, Markus Hoelzel, Matthias Conrad, Florian Kraus

Chemistry - A European Journal, 06.01.2019, DOI: 10.1002/chem.201805298;


Additional Information:

The work was funded by the German Research Foundation and the German Academic Exchange Service. The neutron diffractometric measurements were carried out on the SPODI powder diffractometer of the Heinz Maier Leibnitz Research Neutron Source. Theoretical calculations were carried out at the Finnish IT Center for Science (CSC).

Earlier press release of the research group concerning fluoro chemistry:


Dr. Markus Hölzel

Instrument scientist SPODI

Research-Neutronsource Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II)

Technical University of Munich

Lichtenbergstr. 1, 85748 Garching, Germany

Tel.: +49 89 289 14314 - E-mail:


Prof. Dr. Florian Kraus

Inorganic Chemistry - Fluorine Chemistry

Philipps-Universität Marburg

Hans-Meerwein-Straße 4, 35032 Marburg, Germany

Tel.: +49 6421 282 6668 - E-mail:

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe's leading research
universities, with around 550 professors, 42,000 students, and 10,000 academic
and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural
sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social
sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and
creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in
science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in
Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco,
and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von
Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won
recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM
regularly places among the best universities in Germany.
More stories: Technische Universität München
More stories: Technische Universität München