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At MSU, isotope center opens to unlock universe, revolutionize medicine

Rare Isotope Beams
Part of the interior of the Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, the most powerful nuclear accelerator in the world (Courtesy photo from Michigan State University)

In an unimposing complex of buildings on Shaw Lane in East Lansing, an easy walk from the Red Cedar River and a half-dozen Michigan State University dormitories, scientists are searching for the origins of the universe.

They’re also hoping to revolutionize medicine. And train the next generation of nuclear scientists.

And that’s just the stuff they expect to happen.

“We think we know what we're going to find, but nature hardly ever works out that way,” said Brad Sherrill, science director of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, known as the FRIB. 

Facility for Rare Isotope Beams
On a given day, as many as 100 scientists from around the world will be conducting experiments at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. (Courtesy photo from Michigan State University)

As many as 1,600 scientists from around the globe are expected to work at times in the facility, on MSU’s campus. A ribbon-cutting Monday, attended by U.S. Secretary of Energy and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, will mark the official opening of the FRIB.

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At the heart of the $730-million project, mostly funded by the federal government, is the fastest particle accelerator of its kind in the world. It’s OK if you don’t understand what that means. Even the scientists who manage it don’t know everything they’ll find over the expected 50-year lifespan of the facility.

What they do know: The FRIB is a technological wonder, with scientific implications for the world, and economic benefits for Michigan.

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“This is the nuclear physics equivalent of the launch of the Webb Space Telescope,” Sherrill said, referring to the 2021 launch of the most powerful telescope ever placed in space.

“That’s a new tool that astronomy never had to look at the atmospheres of planets and stars and distant galaxies. This is a nuclear physics equivalent, being able to see and explore kinds of atoms that we never could before.”

Bridge Michigan spoke to Sherrill and FRIB lab director Thomas Glasmacher recently about the impact the facility will have on Michigan and the world. Oh, and whether a careless grad student could create a black hole.

What’s a FRIB?

FRIB houses the world’s most powerful heavy-ion accelerator. It is a complex of four buildings, with an underground tunnel housing the accelerator. That tunnel is 570 feet long, nearly the length of two football fields, and is 70 feet wide, 12 feet high, and 32 feet under the ground of the MSU campus.

The accelerator propels atoms to half the speed of light to collide with a target. The resulting collisions produce combinations of protons and neutrons that aren’t normally found on earth and don’t hold together forever, called rare isotopes.

Just how rare are these isotopes?

Many are not found on earth, and only believed to exist in stars. Researchers believe the speed of the accelerator will help scientists find as many as 1,000 new rare isotopes.

“The discovery opportunity is related to the power of the beam because if you have more powerful beams, you can make more exotic rare isotopes,” Glasmacher said. “It’s almost like an Easter egg hunt. You know there are some eggs over here, but you find eggs in places you didn’t expect. There are areas of research we know about, but there will be discoveries we make that we don’t know about yet.”

How will FRIB research impact our lives?

Past discoveries of rare isotopes have been crucial in developments from smoke detectors to PET scan imaging for disease, to radioisotope dating of ancient earth history.

One area in which Glasmacher said he feels confident the facility will make breakthroughs is in medical research.

“We're not a hospital, but we can make these isotopes for researchers who develop therapies, and we can do it quickly,” Glasmacher said.

What does this research have to do with the stars?

Sherrill said work at the FRIB is likely to help researchers understand the evolution of the universe.

Most of the elements in nature are created in stars and stellar explosions, and there are additional elements made in those stellar explosions that are not normally found on Earth. Rare-isotope accelerators like the one at MSU will be able to create some of those rare isotopes, which could help us understand what the first stars in the universe were like.

Who does the research?

Even before the FRIB opened, MSU had the nation’s top-ranked graduate program in nuclear physics program, training one in 10 of the country’s doctoral students in that field.

Beyond undergrad and grad students, “at any given time, we might have 100 or so scientists on site” from around the world, Sherrill said.  

Most research projects take about three weeks, but some take months. “We are good for the local hotels,” Sherrill joked.

Is there an economic impact for Michigan?

The facility will employ about 1,000 people permanently, and pump $4.4 billion into the Michigan economy over 20 years, according to a 2017 study.

A positive side-effect of the new facility is it will likely draw more highly educated people to live in the state, Sherrill said. “All these people come to Michigan (to study or conduct research), hopefully some of them will stay.”

Could it blow up or create a black hole?

Glasmacher said he’s heard people in the community worry an experiment gone sideways could cause some kind of global catastrophe – a nuclear explosion or “black holes and, you know, the world going away,” Glasmacher said. 

“That's not going to happen.”

Because particles used in the accelerator are isolated rather than condensed like in a atomic bomb, there won’t be any mushroom clouds over East Lansing.

Why is this such a big deal?

“It was something like 30 years ago, when we got to a point in nuclear physics where we realized that we weren't going to make progress unless we had a much expanded ability to explore the atomic nucleus,” Sherrill said.

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The FRIB allows that exploration. 

“Anytime you go somewhere new, you always discover something you didn't expect,” Sherrill said. “And we know enough to know that our knowledge is incomplete. This will help complete our knowledge of the realm of the atomic nucleus.

“It'd be really great for people to follow along and see what it is we discover,” Sherrill said. “So stay tuned.”

Can I see it?

There are regular tours of the FRIB that you can schedule here.

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