Beam Up Soon, East Lansing

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Monday, August 15, 2016, 9:17 am
Aron Sousa and Kepler Domurat-Sousa

This Saturday, August 20, the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) and the associated National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory will hold an open house on the MSU campus. In addition to the open house, the FRIB is also offering free 90-minute tours available for scheduling for the general public on September 16, 19, 23, and 27.

Next Saturday’s open house will allow visitors to tour the FRIB linear accelerator tunnel as well as the new building that will house the facility. The open house will also include demonstrations, talks, and movies about the science that will occur at the FRIB. Tours of the existing National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory—which has been operating for many years at MSU—will also be available.

MSU’s nuclear science program began with one cyclotron. A cyclotron accelerates charged atomic nuclei as they move in a spiral from the center to the outside of a vacuum chamber sandwiched between a pair of a very large magnets. In 1960, the first MSU cyclotron produced a beam of particles at twice the expected power.

Over the years, with financial support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the MSU team built better and more powerful cyclotrons, including the two current cyclotrons that use superconducting magnets. The beams from the cyclotrons are fired at atomic targets to produce atoms with more or less mass (isotopes) than the atoms we usually interact with in daily life.

As an example, the vast majority of the calcium in chalk, animal bones, and milk has 20 protons and 20 neutrons, but the cyclotron beam can help scientists build calcium atoms for experiments that can have as few as 15 neutrons or as many as 38 neutrons.

Only a few of these atoms are stable for very long, but even isotopes with the most fleeting lifetimes can help scientists understand how the nuclear centers of atoms behave and how stars make atoms that are bigger than hydrogen and helium.

Cyclotrons are sometimes also used to make atomic isotopes for medical purposes. When isotopes break down, they often give off energy that can be used to treat diseases like cancer or to diagnose illnesses like coronary artery disease.

Companies that make these “nuclear pharmaceuticals” need to have cyclotrons across the country because the isotopes they produce may only last a few hours. There is one such medical-use cyclotron in East Lansing, operated by Cardinal Health. Each morning nuclear pharmaceuticals made at that cyclotron in East Lansing are shipped to hospitals across our region.

The isotopes the FRIB uses will be created using a linear accelerator, which accelerates its beam along series of magnets in a line, rather than in a cyclotron-style spiral between magnets. The linear accelerator will allow this facility to produce a larger numbers of rare isotopes than anywhere else. Making larger numbers of rare isotopes will make it easier to do interesting experiments.

Pretty much every atom other than hydrogen in our world was built up of protons and neutrons inside a star, released to the universe when the star exploded. A group of new detectors and experiments will allow scientists working with the FRIB to better study how larger and larger atoms are produced inside stars like our sun. The FRIB will provide new opportunities to test out how our atoms were built and may also provide clues as to how we can use them in engineering and medicine.


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Disclosure: Aron Sousa is employed by MSU in the College of Human Medicine.


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