From the atomic to the cosmic
At this point, we hope you feel comfortable with the idea of an isotope. But what about a rare isotope? You might wonder where is that line between a common isotope and rare one. Not to worry. FRIB will be operating with the objective clarity that comes with being one of a kind: It’s going to produce isotopes humans have never observed before, an unassailable standard for “rare.”
“FRIB is a unique place for producing rare isotopes,” says Spyrou, the nuclear astrophysicist. “It's the most powerful heavy-ion accelerator in the world, so it has the ability to produce isotopes that no other facility can produce.”
Which means FRIB’s goal isn’t just about making isotopes for nuclear science research, medicine or any other specific use. It’s about affording the opportunity to make discoveries that create knowledge or change lives.
FRIB is taking us into the unknown, which is why scientists from around the world want to test their ideas here. With support from MSU, the state of Michigan and the DOE Office of Science, FRIB is opening new doors to discovery, expanding our knowledge of fundamental science while furthering our ability to put that knowledge to work in applications.
“History has shown that new facilities and new discoveries, they always lead to something useful for society,” Spyrou says. “This is also what we expect for FRIB.”
The isotopes that go to work in the real world will be made while a global community strives to create nuclei that have never been witnessed on this planet. And those never-before-seen isotopes will help answer some really big, fundamental questions.
For Spyrou, those questions center on how the universe makes its elements and isotopes. Science knows that these atoms are forged in the stars, but questions remain about the exact processes that create them.
“My own research focuses on rare isotopes that we don’t find on Earth naturally, they live for a very short time — less than a second,” Spyrou says. “But they are part of the stellar environment and they’re part of astrophysical processes.”
FRIB can’t perfectly replicate suns or supernovae, but it doesn’t need to. Rather, it will create the rare isotopes that are present in those celestial bodies and those isotopes will move with the same speeds and energies they’d have in the stars. Having new isotopes will thus help reveal the intimate details of atoms and nuclei as well as the grandeur of the heavens that created them. Spyrou’s work is just one example of that.
“It's not exactly like being inside the star, but we have the right conditions to study what's going on in the star,” Spyrou says. “And what FRIB can do, it can’t be done anywhere else on Earth.”
The facility will also help nuclear scientists better understand the forces that hold nuclei and all matter together. Researchers will be able to explore extremely unstable isotopes and unusual nuclear reactions, stress-testing what we think we know, attempting to explain what we don’t and discovering new questions to ask.
It’s this process of discovery that drew Spyrou to her work and FRIB.
“It’s just something that I love to do, working with people and figuring out the answers to problems,” she says.
“There’s a moment in experiments that I think experimentalists live for. You've been setting up your experiment for a month and you haven't slept for days and finally the data comes in and you look at it,” Spyrou says. “It's that realization for a second that no one has seen this ever before. No one knows what this is all about. That moment, for me, it’s irresistible.”