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Local plumber developed integral component of MSU's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams

Gunthorpe Plumbing and Heating in East Lansing
Posted at 9:29 PM, May 11, 2022

EAST LANSING, Mich. — TheFacility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University is home to the world's most powerful heavy ion accelerator. The technology required innovation and not just from the scientists.

In 2014, Gunthorpe Plumbing and Heating in East Lansing, in a joint venture with Limbach, got a contract to work on the $730 million nuclear science research facility.

"It was just for the mechanical and HVAC systems," said Nathan Gunthorpe, vice president of Gunthorpe Plumbing and Heating. "We selected to do some of the more technical welding systems, so some of the activated chill water systems that cool that equipment in the tunnel."

Halfway through the civil construction, FRIB Conventional Facilities Division Director Brad Bull approached Gunthorpe.

"And said, 'Here's what they're expecting us to do.' He gave us a little background, a few drawings, a kind-of-put-together model. 'Can you do it?' We took a field trip down to another lab down south, we looked at an existing plant and came back and said, 'Yeah,'" Gunthorpe said.

FRIB Lab Director Thomas Glasmacher said is was a "design-assist agreement, where we give them the requirements, they make the design and then they install it."

So, what was it they had to design and install? Essentially, a giant cooling system for the lab's equipment, a job typically outsourced to cryogenic specialists.

"You know, out there being a mechanical contractor, you understand your role. I wasn't really in charge of the engineering aspects of it, but I do have a decent background in what they were trying to do," Gunthorpe said. "Essentially, it's a helium system. They have six warm compressors and two cold boxes. They send warm helium through the cold compressors, cool it down to 4K or 2K, which is getting as close to absolute zero as you can."

At that point, as a superliquid, the helium gets transferred down to the tunnel, where magnets are being supercharged to speed up the isotope beam line.

"So that's how they're able to cool those magnets, so they're super efficient and achieve speeds they want to achieve," Gunthorpe said.

A lot of the design and detailing was done in 2016 and most of 2017 was boots on ground. They got it done in an unprecedented 11 months.

Gunthorpe said when they were originally awarded the contract, he had no idea how involved in the project they would be, but he was ready.

"I think all of us took away that, 'Heck, why not us?' We don't need to bring in some specialty contractor God knows where," Gunthorpe said. "We've always prided ourselves on good work and putting the owners' needs first, and when we were out there, this was a need and we took it on, and thank God it worked out."

Glasmacher said the Gunthorpe family business "exemplifies why FRIB is successful in mid-Michigan, because we find these partners who are really good at what they do. He really helped us build FRIB, and then of course all the people that they have working for them."

"They kept telling us that we should change our name," Gunthorpe said. "They didn't like 'plumbing and heating.' Plumbing and heating guys don't install stainless, clean cryogenic systems, right?"

MSU held a ribbon cutting for FRIB last week and the first experiments there began this week.

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