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After 13 years and close to $1 billion, MSU's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams is up and running

FRIB outside
Posted at 5:37 PM, May 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-06 15:28:22-04

EAST LANSING, Mich. — On the day after the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams got the stamp of completion from the U.S. Department of Energy, something had gone wrong with a solenoid.

The operators in central control room were trying to get a handle on the problem. Thomas Glasmacher wasn't worried.

Over the last 13 years, the team he leads built the world's most powerful heavy ion accelerator, developed new technologies to create a one-of-a-kind machine. A glitch wasn't going to phase him.

"All along the way there were problems," said Glasmacher, the lab's director. "But we have a really good team, and, after you overcome the first problems, you know that if they keep on working at the problem, they'll overcome it. And that's what happened so far. We figure out, just with analysis and diligence and grit, what the problems are and then we solve them."

FRIB was a project Michigan State University wasn't supposed to win, a $730 million nuclear science research project paid for mostly by the federal government. Include operational funding, and it's cost close to a $1 billion.

It was designed to help scientists answer fundamental questions about the formation of the elements, the structure of matter, how stars and born and how they die.

And now it's ready.

U.S. Secretary of Energy and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm will be on campus Monday for a ribbon cutting. The first experiments are set to start next week.

The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University.

In some ways, it's been decades in the making.

"It was, in the late 1980s that scientists started thinking about how to answer some of the big questions in nuclear physics," said Brad Sherrill, FRIB's scientific director, "and it became clear that we needed access to rare isotopes and access to isotopes that aren't normally found on Earth."

Isotopes are essentially different versions of the elements on the periodic table, atomic particles with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons

Understanding how those different types of atoms hang together and how they break apart, helps scientists understand the laws that govern how all the matter in the universe hangs together.

There are probably close to 10,000 isotopes in nature, but most of them aren't easy to come by. Some are only made inside of exploding stars. Some exist for just fractions of a second. Scientists have only been able to study about 3,000 of them.

The superconducting linear accelerator at the heart for FRIB, which can propel beams of charged particles at half the speed of light, was designed to produce those rare particles in relative abundance. Scientists estimate it will allow them to study close to 1,000 additional isotopes.

Building it was an exercise in innovation.

"That technology didn't exist," Sherrill said. "So we had to create a better version of particle accelerators that could accelerate many, many particles and deliver a very high power beam, because we need the power to make the rarest of isotopes."

And they needed a production facility that could withstand that kind of power. And a target that could operate a extremely high temperatures. And a way to strip away electrons from the beam. And a way of collecting the unused beam. New technologies, every one.

The superconducting linear accelerator at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

MSU was a dark horse candidate for the project, though the university had been doing rare isotope research at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory for decades.

When MSU began competing for the project in 2008, the Department of Energy hasn't put a major facility on a university campus for decades, and MSU's competition was Argonne National Laboratory, a Department of Energy facility.

"It's unusual, probably unique, for a facility this large to be built at a university," said Gail Dodge, chair of the Nuclear Science Advisory Council to the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation and dean of the College of Sciences at Old Dominion University. "The fact that DOE selected MSU to build FRIB is because the proposal was outstanding."

And because the support for the project from the university and the state was clear. Lou Anna Simon, then MSU's president, took the unusual step of attending the meetings with federal official and made an impression, Dodge said.

The fact that the state and MSU contribued $94.5 million of the project cost couldn't have hurt.

But MSU proved as good as its promises, Dodge said.

"Tthe fact that FRIB is coming in on schedule and on budget is amazing," she said, "and this is a huge testament to the effective management of the project by the MSU team."

There were moments when FRIB's future seemed uncertain. Asked about the project after a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club in early 2012, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu hinted that support at the federal level wasn't certain.

"We have to be very careful," he said. "We can't be starting six things and we can only afford four things."

In response, MSU and the state's congressional delegation mobilized to make sure federal dollars kept flowing.

"All throughout between 2009 and 2022, we've had bicameral bipartisan support from the Michigan delegation," Glasmacher said. "And that's really, really important. And I think that's what saw us through on the political side."

FRIB will be used by a community of approximately 1,600 physicists and astrophysicists from around the world. When the lab asked for proposals for the initial round experiments, which will start on May 9, they received three times more than they slots for.

Artemis Spyrou got one of those slots. She's an MSU astrophysicist working to understand how stars evolve and how they explode.

Artemis Spyrou
Artemis Spyrou, professor of physics at Michigan State University.

"When telescopes observe certain stellar events like a supernova, then we're trying to understand how did that happen, how much energy is released," she said. "So it's really diving deep into understanding how stars work. And, as it happens, the energy of all the stars is produced by nuclear reactions. So this is exactly what we're trying to do here. We're studying these nuclear reactions that take place in stars, and we tried to do it for the specific isotopes that are there in the stellar environment."

But the work at FRIB could have an impact closer to home. Applied research won't be the focus, but the work there could lead to innovations in areas such as nuclear medicine, security and alternative energy.

"The study of these rare isotopes is going to be a little bit like a voyage of discovery," Sherrill said. "It's a little bit like going to Mackinac Island if you've never been to Mackinac Island before, you think you know what you're going to find when you get there. But, when you get there, it's actually way better."

Bringing the project to completion "feels really good," Glasmacher said, "and it's also tiring,"

"It's a 13-year project," he said. "That's a long project, but it's really gratifying that the machine works."

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