At Michigan State University, the Center for Isotopes opens to unlock the universe and revolutionize medicine

“This is the nuclear physics equivalent of launching the Webb Space Telescope,” Cheryl said, referring to the 2021 launch of the most powerful telescope ever placed in space.

“This is a new tool that astronomy has never had to look at the atmospheres of distant planets, stars and galaxies. That’s the equivalent in nuclear physics, being able to see and explore types of atoms we haven’t been able to see before.”

Bridge Michigan spoke to Sherrill and FRIB Laboratory Director Thomas Glasmacher recently about the facility’s impact on Michigan and the world. Oh, and whether a careless graduate student can create a black hole.

What is FRIB?

FRIB houses the world’s most powerful heavy ion accelerator. It is a complex of four buildings, with an underground tunnel containing the metronome. This tunnel is 570 feet long, roughly the length of two football fields, 70 feet wide, 12 feet high, and 32 feet underground on the MSU campus.

The accelerator propels the atoms to half the speed of light to collide with a target. The resulting collisions produce groups of protons and neutrons that are not normally found on Earth and do not hold together forever, called rare isotopes.

How rare are these isotopes?

Not many are found on Earth, and it is believed that they are found only in the stars. Researchers believe that the accelerator’s speed will help scientists find up to 1,000 new rare isotopes.

“The chance of detection is related to the strength of the beam because if you have stronger beams, you can make more rare isotopes,” Glasmacher said. “It’s almost like an Easter egg hunt. You know there are some eggs here, but you find eggs in places you weren’t expecting. There are areas of research that we know about, but there are going to be discoveries we don’t know about yet.”

How will FRIB research affect our lives?

Previous discoveries of rare isotopes have been crucial to developments from smoke detectors to PET scans of diseases, to radioisotope dating of the Earth’s ancient history.

One area in which Glasmacher said he feels confident the facility will make breakthroughs is medical research.

“We are not a hospital, but we can make these isotopes for researchers developing treatments, and we can do it quickly,” Glasmacher said.

What does this research have to do with the stars?

Sherrill said work at FRIB is likely to help researchers understand the evolution of the universe.

Most of the elements in nature are made in stars and starbursts, and there are additional elements made in those starbursts that are not normally found on Earth. Rare isotope accelerators like the one at Michigan State University will be able to create some of these rare isotopes, which could help us understand what the first stars in the universe looked like.

Who does the research?

Even before the opening of FRIB, MSU had the nation’s best graduate program in nuclear physics, training one in 10 of the nation’s doctoral students in the field.

“At any time, we might have 100 or so scientists on site” from all over the world, Cheryl said, other than undergraduate and graduate students.

Most research projects take about three weeks, but some take months. “We’re good for local hotels,” Cheryl joked.

Is there an economic impact on Michigan?

The facility will permanently employ about 1,000 people, and inject $4.4 billion into Michigan’s economy over 20 years, according to a 2017 study.

One positive side effect of the new facility, Cheryl said, is that it is likely to attract more highly educated people to live in the state. “All these people come to Michigan (to study or do research), and hopefully some of them will stay.”

Could it explode or create a black hole?

Glasmacher said he’s heard people in the community worry that a sideways experiment might cause some kind of global catastrophe — a nuclear explosion or “black holes, you know, the world going away,” Glasmacher said.

“This will not happen.”

Since the particles used in the accelerator are isolated rather than condensed as in the atomic bomb, there will be no mushroom clouds over East Lansing.

Why is it so important?

“It was almost 30 years ago, when we got to a point in nuclear physics where we realized we wouldn’t make progress unless we had an expanded ability to explore the atomic nucleus,” Cheryl said.