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$13 million project will harvest isotopes at MSU's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams

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Posted at 9:53 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-13 18:18:13-05

MSU CAMPUS — We all know farmers harvest their crops. But did you know you can harvest isotopes?

The answer is yes you can. And Michigan State University has gotten a $13 million federal grant to harvest isotopes at Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

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Greg Severin is the grant’s lead investigator and an assistant professor of chemistry at MSU.

The idea behind FRIB, he said, "was to be able to make groundbreaking nuclear physics experiments. In order to do the experiments that need to be done that sort of test the boundaries of nuclear physics, that lab also ends up producing some by-product radioisotopes.”

Radioisotopes are basically versions of an element that are unstable. Some exist for only fractions of a second. Capturing them isn't easy. But they can be useful for everything from nuclear imaging to food preservation.

“We can use them for medical applications, we can use them for horticultural applications, geochemistry," Severin said. "We really can apply those in a lot of those in a lot of different places.”

They are planning to build up harvesting capabilities at FRIB, basically taking advantage of these radioisotopes that will be produced at the lab anyways.

“Collecting them, and purifying them, and giving them to those applications,” Severin said. “It looks a lot like research now. But eventually, we would translate that to something that can eventually be clinical.”

What would the process might look like to someone who isn't a scientist?

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“What it ends up looking like a lot is just a household plumbing system. The way that we collect these isotopes is that they are implanted in a flowing water stream," Severin said. "We just circulate around and around inside of FRIB and we use that to cool the various equipment within FRIB.”

Severin says they use something that looks like a household water softened to extract the isotopes but wants everyone to know that the talk about plumbing is just an analogy.

“We’re nowhere near East Lansing drinking water. We’re doing this very carefully in a closed system,” he said.

The $730 million facility is being paid for by U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, MSU and the state of Michigan. It's expected to go online in 2022. The $13 million grant comes from the Office of Science's Isotope Program.

So what can you expect from all of this? Severin says in the initial stages it will be very exciting to the scientific community.

“The idea is that we increase the scientific output of that lab," Severin said. "That will be in the beginning so we’re going to connect with applications basically to accelerate other scientific endeavors at MSU and elsewhere in the U.S.”

He says the impact might not be seen directly by the public because they will be supporting a lot of other research.

“As we develop this further then I think that what we can look forward to is having things that we work within our lab end up in cancer patients and treating them,” Severin said. “So this is eventually where I would like this project to go is that we get to a point of being able to do PET scans for patients and more therapy.”

Animation and video footage in the video was provided by Michigan State University.

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