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April 4, 2022

Opening doors to discovery

The stage is set for awe-inspiring discoveries and progress yet to be imagined at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University.

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For tens of thousands of years, humans have marveled at the night sky. What happens in stars remains mysterious to scientists, despite everything they’ve already learned. Certain matter produced when stars shine or release energy, for instance, has never made it to Earth and exists in the cosmos for mere seconds.

"There are processes that happen inside stars that involve very exotic nuclei, and up to now we were never able to produce the nuclei that participate in these processes," said Artemis Spyrou, professor of physics at FRIB and in the MSU Department of Physics and Astronomy.

That’s about to change. Access to such rare, fleeting matter will be possible for the first time at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or FRIB, a user facility for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, or DOE-SC, which selected MSU to build and operate the facility. FRIB will host the world's most powerful heavy-ion accelerator, allowing researchers to access more than 1,000 new rare isotopes never before produced on Earth. With these new tools in hand, scientists hope to illuminate the makings of atomic nuclei and how the universe formed, while propelling innovation in medicine, nuclear security, environmental science and more.

“The raw amount of new information we will get is just amazing,” Spyrou said. “We definitely expect new things to appear in basic science.”

In many ways, the future of food, fuel and health rests with the nation’s scientists. As a DOE-SC facility, FRIB supports the mission of the DOE-SC Office of Nuclear Physics, enabling priority research opportunities for the nation and the global nuclear science community. DOE-SC entrusting MSU with the facility allows the university to build on its long history of groundbreaking research in agriculture, plant sciences and health and medicine, which includes hybrid crop innovations and powerful cancer drugs.

The new facility also comes on the heels of decades of excellence in nuclear physics at MSU. The campus has hosted the nation's top-ranked nuclear physics graduate program since 2010 and has been home to the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, which accelerated its first particle beam in 1965. That history, and MSU's commitment to research that fuels discovery in numerous fields, draws the world's top scientists. Soon, researchers at FRIB will be at work creating never-before-seen isotopes, while fostering the next generation of nuclear physics talent.


The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at MSU is home to the world’s most powerful heavy-ion accelerator. See what makes MSU a nuclear science powerhouse.

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How FRIB scientists create rare isotopes


Scientists at FRIB will be able to "watch what's happening in almost any chemical system," said Greg Severin, assistant professor of chemistry at FRIB and in the MSU Department of Chemistry. For example, they can glimpse inside ocean currents or observe how plants take up food with a level of precision previously not possible.


To do that, scientists need to study what are called rare isotopes — versions of elements that have an unstable combination of protons and neutrons. This demands a powerful beam, made up of charged particles, which causes atoms to speed up and collide.


“One of the metrics of discovery potential is the intensity of the primary beam, and FRIB will have the most intense primary beam in the world,” said FRIB Laboratory Director Thomas Glasmacher.


FRIB accelerates primary beams and impinges them on a target. The collision creates a new combination of rare isotopes, from which scientists can capture fragments for further research.


“FRIB is designed to steer one of those fragments to where the beamline ends, hundreds of meters away. Scientists can then look at that particular isotope and study its properties,” Severin said.


Science that’s bound to change society and improve lives


FRIB can supply scientists with about 80% of the isotopes predicted to exist in the universe — thousands more than was previously considered possible, most of which aren’t found naturally on Earth. Access to these isotopes supports the primary mission of FRIB, which is to help scientists answer questions about the building blocks of the universe: What holds us together, how heavy elements got here and unknown details about the Standard Model of particle physics.  


FRIB serves a secondary purpose, too. Scientists will be able to capture the jumble of fragments after each particle collision for vast potential uses, including experiments and research in medicine, material science and environmental science. According to Glasmacher, three quarters of FRIB’s supercharged beam whooshes past its target (a rotating carbon disk) and comes to a stop in a "beam dump" filled with 5,000 gallons of water, where it breaks up into even more rare isotopes that scientists can use to improve lives.


"We can then pump the water into ion-exchange columns and separate out the isotopes that are helpful for humans," Glasmacher explained.


Breakthroughs in cancer medicine could be on the horizon. Doctors already use radioactive isotopes to find malignant cancer cells in PET scans. But medicine has yet to tap the full potential of rare isotopes to seek out and attack certain cancers in the body. Malignant cells can accumulate elements, like copper, that are more complicated targets than glucose, and rare isotopes can help chemists and clinicians track them down.


“The advantage from FRIB is we get a much wider variety of choices of different elements and decay modes that we can use to do the imaging and therapy,” Severin said.


Beyond medicine, scientists are eager to use rare isotopes for a wide range of discovery. Plant scientists will be able to explore the effects of rare isotopes on mushroom growth, which could lead to discoveries in soil health and applications for agriculture. Rare isotopes may also be used to research and develop new materials for everything from pharmaceuticals to alternative energy and fuel sources. And on the nuclear security front, FRIB scientists will be able to study rare isotopes to further their understanding of nuclear reactions without the need for weapons testing.


Fertile ground for discovery on a university campus


It's rare for a DOE-SC user facility to be located in the heart of a university campus, where students in different stages of education and fields of study can cross paths with elite scientists. This setting, where people from diverse backgrounds can bring their unique experiences to the table, is what makes FRIB so full of potential as a home for science that drives discovery.


It also “provides a powerful way to train the next generation of students," said Paul Guèye, associate professor of nuclear physics at FRIB and in the MSU Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Being on a campus means that students have FRIB in their backyard. After they learn something in the classroom, they can get their hands dirty understanding new concepts and skills.” And that applies whether their major is accelerator physics, engineering, business or journalism. All students at MSU will have an incredible opportunity to be exposed to the science underway at FRIB.


For Guèye, shaping the future of nuclear physics also means opening doors for a more diverse population of scientists and young students — and rewriting the rules for how problems get asked and solved. His work to engage middle- and high-school students in research with professional scientists and expand opportunities for underrepresented groups in nuclear physics is helping lay the foundation for the science that will be done at FRIB.


With so much potential on the horizon, the spillover of intellectual energy is also expected to bring new industry investment to Michigan and generate participation at a local level in the communities surrounding MSU. Ultimately, FRIB is poised to usher in a more inclusive and connected era of science — one with the potential to change our understanding of the world and how we live in it.


“We’re looking forward to seeing how else we can engage even those who think they cannot contribute to science,” Guèye said. “Changing the world is a team effort.”


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