MSU’s FRIB: Ready to accelerate discoveries in nuclear physics and applications

May 3, 2022, 7:16AMNuclear News
An aerial view of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing, Mich. (Photo: FRIB)

Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) officially opened yesterday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, elected officials, and guests who had supported the project during its planning and construction, including ANS Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer Craig Piercy. They were there to celebrate the completion—on time and within budget—of the world’s most powerful heavy-ion accelerator and the first accelerator-based Department of Energy Office of Science user facility located on a university campus.

Isotope research areas at FRIB. (Image: FRIB)

What FRIB can do: The linear accelerator at the heart of FRIB will propel atoms to half the speed of light, resulting in collisions that produce isotopes so rare that until now they have been formed only in stars and stellar explosions. FRIB will give about 1,600 researchers from around the world access to more than 1,000 rare isotopes, many never before produced on Earth. That research will lead to discoveries about the properties of rare isotopes, nuclear astrophysics, and fundamental nuclear physics, pushing the boundaries of known isotopes on the Chart of the Nuclides.

Why study rare isotopes? Modeling atomic nuclei and their interactions can lead to practical applications in fields such as medicine, nuclear energy and waste management, nuclear security, agriculture, and industry. According to MSU, some of FRIB’s most immediate contributions will be in the production of new medical radioisotopes to target and attack cancer cells.

The DOE Isotope Program has provided $13 million to build isotope-harvesting capabilities at FRIB. During routine operation for its nuclear physics mission—without interfering with FRIB’s primary users—extra, unused isotopes could be “harvested” using additional tools and infrastructure.

FRIB is outfitted with a single event effects (SEE) test facility to measure the response of electronic components to heavy-ion beams, simulating the effect of decades of exposure to cosmic radiation in a few minutes. SEEs are caused when a single particle deposits enough energy to alter device function, which could lead to device failure or other errors in systems on Earth, in airplanes, or in spacecraft.

How it works: Atoms of a source element, such as uranium, are heated, ionized, and injected into the 400-kW superconducting radiofrequency linear accelerator. The linac can drive the charged particles to at least 200 MeV/nucleon, providing the highest intensity beams at half the speed of light. The beams strike a target in the rare isotope production area, and the collision of nuclei produces an array of rare isotopes that are run through a fragment separator, where a series of magnets selects the desired isotopes for study and sends them to the experimental area as either fast, stopped, or reaccelerated beams.

Laying the groundwork: In an April 2002 report, the DOE’s Nuclear Science Advisory Committee recommended a facility, then known as the Rare Isotope Accelerator, as the highest priority for major new construction in nuclear physics. Michigan State University, home of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory , and Argonne National Laboratory competed to host the facility, and MSU was announced as the future home of FRIB in December 2008.

Construction began in October 2014 and was completed in January 2022. While the bulk of the funding for the $730 million construction project came from the DOE, the State of Michigan contributed $94.5 million.

Wielding scissors for the official ribbon cutting were MSU President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. (Photo: Craig Piercy)

Celebrating a science and engineering achievement: ANS’s Piercy worked closely with MSU’s FRIB team and has seen the project come full circle. He was present at both the groundbreaking in 2014 and the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 2.

“I was honored to be part of the FRIB project team for 17 years during the scoping, competition, siting, and construction of the facility,” Piercy said. “However, the true heroes are the scientists and engineers who brought FRIB from scientific vision to concrete reality. Big congratulations to MSU for bringing this project to fruition on time and on budget. FRIB will allow scientists to probe the origins of stars and the fundamental structure of matter and explore new life-saving medical treatments.”

The event was also a homecoming for Granholm. “Returning home to Michigan to unveil the FRIB—which began construction when I was governor—is a testament to the hard work that it took to get to this point and the pivotal role this facility will play in making America the global leader in rare isotope nuclear science research,” Granholm said. “Along with boosting the nation’s innovative capacity and global competitiveness, this facility will help us discover new things about our universe and ourselves, find new ways to diagnose and treat cancer, and strengthen our national security.”

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