By Lawrence Cosentino

MSU’s nuclear physics lab is ready to accelerate

Way out in the universe, inside huge exploding stars, interesting things are happening.

If you could shrug off the thermonuclear heat and poke around inside, you would find the same sorts of particles that eventually became you, your dog, your planet and everything and everybody you have ever seen, felt, tasted or known.

Unfortunately, you can only find this primordial stuff cooking inside a distant supernova, where it only lasts a few seconds.

And one place else — Michigan State University’s nuclear physics lab, conveniently located near the MSU Dairy Store.

So grab your ice cream and let’s go inside. But be careful. Everybody here is extra crazy right now.

Last December, the U.S. Department of Energy gave MSU the thumbs-up to accelerate the lab’s power by a factor of thousands, or millions, depending on your yardstick.

A $14 million office building has already sprung up next to the lab, in preparation for the building and operation of the $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or FRIB (say “ef-rib”). Funded by the Department of Energy, the lab will take about 10 years to design and build.

When it goes on line, MSU will have one of the world’s three top nuclear physics research facilities.

FRIB will attract top researchers and students from all over the world, but it’s not about university rankings. The MSU lab is diving headlong into the most basic research there is. Everything is made of atoms, and every atom has a nucleus in the middle. (The plural of “nucleus” — and these things are very plural — is “nuclei.”) When FRIB comes online, MSU physicists will be able to probe and tweak atomic nuclei as never before, creating and observing forms of matter found nowhere else on Earth.

Needless to say, there are some excited people here.

Big Bang to heavy metal

“Here we are, at 13.72 billion years after the Big Bang, and you look up in the sky, you see 200 billion galaxies,” MSU Physics Professor Gary Westfall said. “You look at our own galaxy, with 200 billion stars. So there’s this tremendous amount of stuff out there. Where did it all come from?”

Westfall divides his research time between the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island and the lab at MSU.

Two weeks ago, he sat in his office at MSU, hands behind his head, in classic professor pose. An empty Pepsi bottle rolled between the stacks of papers on his desk.

When FRIB is online, Westfall said, MSU will join the Brookhaven lab and Jefferson Laboratory in Virginia as one of three top centers of nuclear science research in the United States.

“At Brookhaven, we collide nuclei together at high enough energies to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang,” Westfall said. That means he works with bits of matter even tinier than atomic nuclei — quarks and gluons.

The phone rang.

“Yeah, what time? 11:30 sounds good.

Out in front of Chemistry. OK, bye.”

He put down the phone.

“My lunch date,” he explained.

Back to Brookhaven. “We talk about the origin of, ah, origin of the universe, if you’d like,” he said.

Think of Westfall as a nuclear physics deejay, playing the universe’s oldest memories back to itself. At Brookhaven, he spins the hits of the Big Bang era. At MSU he covers a later period — heavy metal.

The Big Bang, Westfall explained, created only the two simplest elements, hydrogen and helium. The stars had to create all the heavier stuff, including the metals.

“Everything in your body, the calcium, carbon, oxygen, all was created inside a star,” he said. “Then somehow it had to get it out.”

Astrophysicists think our solar system came from the remnants of a supernova somewhere nearby. Our own puny sun isn’t hot enough to do the job.

“I take these nuclei that some star worked millions of years to create, and I crash them together, and I create a system of nuclear matter that looks like the supernova when it collapses,” he said.


It’s time to chill out, like they do on “Antiques Roadshow.” Let’s look at a museum of old cyclotrons.

A cyclotron is an amusement park ride for charged subatomic particles. Around and around they go, accelerated by very big magnets, until they hit a target and smash into something. At that point, it becomes an amusement park for physicists.

Sometimes researchers just observe the results of the collision. At other times, the collisions create new particles — rare isotopes, or variants, of the elements we know.

There’s a sort-of-helpful summary of this process at the Berkeley Lab’s educational Web site: “It’s like staging a head-on collision between two strawberries and getting several new strawberries, lots of tiny acorns, a banana, a few pears, a walnut and a plum.”

But the fruit salad doesn’t last long, because atoms like to snap back to their regulation number of component protons, neutrons and electrons. Gold likes to stay gold; oxygen likes to say oxygen. So the rare isotopes decay in fractions of a second and you have to measure them fast.

This strange business has been going on at MSU for 50 years. Anybody at MSU will gladly go over the lab’s historic run of cyclotrons as lovingly as Uncle Ernie tallies the Buicks he’s driven over the years. First there was the K50 model, built in 1961, when MSU President John Hannah committed the university to a top-drawer nuclear physics program.

The K50 was followed by the K500 in 1975, the world’s first superconducting cyclotron. (“Superconducting” means that a super-cooled metal such as niobium helps zip the beam along without losing heat energy.) In 1979, the cyclotron at MSU helped the university snag nuclear physics pioneer David Scott from the top job at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Scott helped keep the physics lab on the front burner as provost at MSU from 1986 to 1992.

In 1988, the most powerful superconducting cyclotron in the world, the K1200, came online, giving MSU the world lead in isotope research for 20 years.

But time is cruel to high-tech equipment. By 2001, to keep up with the cutting edge, MSU had to pair up the K500 and K1200, like aging rockers Elton John and Billy Joel, and put them on the same bill.

Every time obsolescence has loomed, the lab has found a way to accelerate out of the doldrums. That drive has impressed some of the world’s best physicists.

Konrad Gelbke has been director of MSU’s cyclotron lab since 1992 and will run FRIB as well. Gelbke could have gone to Heidelberg, where he first studied, or MIT, but he opted to stay at MSU when he saw the administration was serious about nuclear physics. “Here, if you have the right ideas, nobody’s in the way,” Gelbke said.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon already had her eye on the nuclear ball as provost, when Gelbke took over the lab. “She has been a phenomenal supporter,” Gelbke said. “She basically removed all obstacles.”

The lab’s stellar history helped MSU snag the contract for FRIB from its competitor, the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Gelbke said FRIB will put MSU back on top and keep it there for 20 years or more.

“It is the most powerful machine at this stage on the drawing boards anywhere in the world for isotope science,” he said.

That ’s ma inly because the business end of FRIB is not a cyclotron, but a linear accelerator, or linac — a straight track, like a gun barrel.

It turns out that producing isotopes, especially the very unstable ones, is a bit like trying for the giant teddy bear at the county fair.

“You have to throw a hundred billion atoms at your target to produce the one you’re trying to observe,” Westfall said.

The FRIB linac’s main advantage is its huge intensity. “You can run a lot more particles,” Westfall said.

FRIB chief scientist Brad Sherrill said the new axe would be “1,000 or even a million times more powerful,” depending on the type of experiment.

What is more, the beam at FRIB will be continuous, not pulsed, beefing up the bombardment of particles even more. When FRIB is up and running, a year’s work will take an hour. The quicker turnover will make all the difference, because “beam time” is as precious among physicists as telescope time is for astronomers.

Gelbke expects about a thousand users from all over the world to clamor for beam time at FRIB.

“It will be a huge spire, a tower of excellence, if we can do it right,” he said.

FRIB puts MSU back near the top of the heap, the lab is retooling with
a new plan to stop the beams it creates and reaccelerate them so
scientists can get a better look at their behavior. Gelbke hopes the
resulting “ReA3 beam program” will keep the lab at the cutting edge
until FRIB is ready.

Pure and applied

The cyclotron lab at MSU welcomes visitors, whether or not they can grasp the cosmic madness going on inside.

“Every time I go over
there, I am awestruck,” President Simon said. “It’s hard for me as an
individual to imagine thinking about that work, and then putting it
into practice.”

skeptics ask Simon how the arcane world of nuclear physics fits in with
MSU’s practical land-grant mission, she has a ready answer.

not a stretch at all,” Simon said. “You have to lead with cutting edge
research. That’s true whether you’re looking at FRIB or the Plant
Research lab.”

Besides, the fruits of nuclear physics research are ubiquitous in the modern world. In many hospitals, compact (room-sized) accelerators direct beams of particles to cancerous tumors, sparing healthy tissue. The
growing alphabet soup of medical diagnostic tools, from CAT scans to
MRI’s to PET (positron emission tomography), springs straight from
nuclear research. A “laptop” particle accelerator for medical use is
not far away. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security uses various
particle beams to scan shipping containers for nuclear material.
Physicists even hope to find ways to safely “burn,” or micro-dismantle,
long-lived radioactive waste from nuclear reactors. The list goes much

first emphasis is always basic research,” Westfall said. “It turns out,
when we create such a nice tool, it also has lots of applications.”

knows that William Beal, MSU’s fabled botany hero, buried seeds as part
of an experiment lasting 120 years. “It’s like having a portfolio,”
Simon said. “You have long-term and short-term stocks.”

Besides, MSU’s cyclotron is bearing fruit faster than that.

an example, Simon cited Niowave, the growing high-tech company started
in 2006 by MSU prof Terry Grimm, tucked into the fusty old Walnut
School in north Lansing. Niowave makes niobium components for nuclear
accelerators around the world, with a work force of over 50, including
auto industry machinists and grad students from MSU. The “clean room,”
where critical components are handled in dustfree conditions used to be
the school’s gym— the high ceiling and 2-foot-thick floor were perfect.

Sticky mats

Meierbachtol, a third year as a grad student in nuclear chemistry, came
to MSU because it’s on the edge of the field, and she didn’t mean

“I like it that the
lab is focused on basic research,” she said. “It’s fundamental science.
Through understanding one small piece at a time, we build the big

has been working on a prototype of a detector for about a year.
Detectors are the devices that track the flying particles inside the
cyclotron or accelerator, relaying crucial information unavailableto human eyes.

Down in the lab, Meierbachtol fussed over a shiny metal box, a prototype of a bigger detector to be used at FRIB.

“The beam of particles comes in, interacts in the gas, and comes out,” she said.

A tangle of wires, sensors and other equipment relay information about the collisions happening inside the box.

Can you see any evidence of the collision through the windows?

“Oh, you can’t be standing here looking at it when the cyclotron is on,” she said.

— of course you can’t. In the rush to gee-whizz over everything, it’s
easy to forget that those 5-foot-thick doors, sticky floor mats
(collected every day to check for radioactive leaks) and warning signs
are all there for a reason. Isotopes decay. They’re unstable and they
throw off particles. That’s what radiation is.

project manager Thomas Glasmacher said the danger should be kept in
perspective. “You can’t be cavalier about it,” he said. “There is
radiation when the beam is on, and it is dangerous. It’s well shielded,
and we control it.”

said the university has a “covenant with the community” that if anybody
is exposed to radiation, it’s less than 10 percent of the allowable
National Safety Council limit.

Glasmacher addressed the question of potential FRIB catastrophe with supercooled irony.

“The nice thing about the linear accelerator is that it will not blow up,” he said.

When a linear accelerator breaks, he said, it just shuts down.

“A linear accelerator is not a reactor,” he said sternly.

Meierbachtol acknowledged that her field has a unique public perception problem.

“‘Nuclear’ isn’t synonymous with ‘explosion,’” she said.

Glasmacher said he’s more worried about mundane things.

“We’re gonna make a ditch on campus,” he said. The FRIB accelerator will extend partly under the current lab. “We need to make sure no students fall into the ditch.”

Glasmacher has thrown the colossal job of building FRIB into his own equivalent of a particle accelerator.

trick with all these complicated projects is you break them down into
small pieces,” he said. “It’s like a giant middle school. The only
difference is, there’s a lot of middle schools around and you can see
how they did the last one.”

the last 10 years, Glasmacher said, MSU has done about a billion
dollars worth of construction on campus, so the civil construction
culture is well established. For the more advanced work, the MSU design
team consults with people from other big Department of Energy physics
projects like Long Island’s NSLSII Light Source and Spallation Neutron
Source at Oak Ridge.

“It’s like a network of people who build big stuff,” he said. “You can learn from them how not to screw it up.”

also has the help of a major partner. Early in September, a team of 28
technicians from the founder of the feast, the Department of Energy,
came to MSU to grill the FRIB team on its progress.

“They will do that twice a year to keep us honest,” Glasmacher said. “That’s good. They’re
involved. They don’t just say, ‘Send us a memo.’”

There have already
been unforeseen headaches. Two weeks ago, the FRIB team’s big worry was
Chicago’s shot at the 2016 Olympics and its impact on the Midwestern
construction market. “2015 is exactly when we want to build,” he said.
“What if concrete becomes scarce? I’m not too happy Chicago wasn’t
chosen, but that’s one less worry we have.”

The view

Konrad Gelbke doesn’t smile a lot, but ask him what excites him most about FRIB and you get a rare high-energy beam.

“What we don’t know,” he said.

the coming decades, hundreds of detailed bids for “beam time” at FRIB
will be vetted by an international committee of experts, but it’s hard
to predict what will happen in a particle accelerator.

at FRIB may shed light on any number of mysteries, from the small
amount of anti-matter in the universe (calculations indicate that there
should be more) to what happens inside hyper-dense neutron stars to the
nature of so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

wanted to get some better trade routes for the space — spice trade,”
Gelbke said, quickly correcting an astrophysical slip of the tongue.
“So he sent some ships out and discovered something entirely different.”

treats the sea of unknowns like a warm pool. “I can think of maybe one
accelerator project that actually found what they were looking for
directly,” he said with a grin.

would be the Bevatron at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which began
operating in 1954. For decades, physicists theorized about the
existence of anti-matter before there was any experimental evidence.
The anti-proton, the first bit of anti-matter, was discovered at the
Bevatron in 1955. For that, Emilio Segre and Owen Chamberlain got the
1959 Nobel Prize.

always say, the Bevatron was designed to do an experiment to create and
discover the anti-proton, but I’m not so sure it’s true!” Westfall

“That’s just in the nature of where we are in our understanding of the universe,” Sherrill said. “It’s very incomplete.”

has a glassy corner office overlooking the east end of the campus — for
now. Soon another building will go up about 10 feet away. Sherrill’s
wing, the one built this year, houses preliminary design staff; the
next one will add scientists and users. “In the meantime, I can enjoy
the view,” he shrugged.