Beam us up

MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams gets to the heart of the matter

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On April 23, 2022, the first sunny Saturday afternoon in months, about 1,000 people ducked into a windowless labyrinth of concrete, cables and electronics, housed in a dim, zeppelin-sized bunker on the south campus of Michigan State University. They listened patiently as scientists shouted themselves hoarse, through pandemic masks and over the roar of machinery, about radio frequencies, dipole magnets and other arcane subjects. 

They turned their back on the sun itself to learn about MSU’s $774 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and with good reason. This place can do things even the sun can’t.  

FRIB (most of the scientists say “eff-rib”), which officially opened for research Monday (May 2), will enable researchers to plumb the fundamental forces that hold matter together, trace the origin of the heavier chemical elements in distant cosmic conflagrations, push the frontiers of medical diagnostics and treatment and almost surely make unforeseen, even shocking, discoveries. 

At the April 23 “FRIB Countdown” open house, MSU researcher Jaideep Singh pointed to a chaotic-looking jumble of wires, bolts and boxes and happily shouted the same thing to group after group. 

Singh told visitors that he and his team expect to get as few as 10 atoms per day of the rare isotope they want — a patient fisherman’s pace, but a remarkable number, considering the isotope’s location at the very edge of nuclear existence. 

“Every time our detectors give a little blip, it’s going to be super exciting and we’ll be doing a little dance,” he beamed. “It’s going to be brand new science that’s never happened before, and it’s going to happen within hours of turning on the beam around May 10.” 

Singh and his team are fishing for unicorns. 

He told visitors that one of the first isotopes produced will be so exotic it isn’t even listed on the “main isotopes of sodium” Wikipedia page and will survive for only a few thousandths of a second before decaying away. 

When it comes to cranking out lighter elements like hydrogen and helium, our own Sun is a Viking. Heavier elements — not so much. Many of the rare isotopes produced at FRIB can only be found in exploding stars, somewhere out in the universe. And, if all goes as planned next week, on the blooming campus of MSU. And that’s just the beginning. 

Despite the hundred-ton magnets, super-cooled liquid helium baths and banks of sophisticated radio controls, much of FRIB feels more like the basement of a power plant than the deck of a starship. 

That’s because FRIB is a workplace, not a movie set.  

Although it’s housed on a university campus, FRIB is a user facility for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Science Office, funded primarily by the federal government. 

The real grandeur of FRIB lies in its mission: to discover, explore and understand all forms of nuclear matter. 

“We’re trying to understand how stars work, and how they create the elements,” MSU Physics Professor Artemis Spyrou explained. 

Now it feels like a starship. 

The range of potential spinoffs from basic research at FRIB could have impact on anything that’s made of atoms —from zapping cancerous tumors to developing micro-batteries — but this is not an applied science project. 

“We need to lead with the basic science,” FRIB’s laboratory director, Thomas Glasmacher, asserted. “The Office of Science is supposed to do basic research that doesn’t compete with industry. Spinoffs are a good thing if they happen, and we want to have fertile ground to allow them to happen, but we can’t lead with the spinoffs.” 

An international panel of top scientists sifts through hundreds of requests for “beam time” at FRIB. 

For the time being, about 75% to 80% of FRIB’s user community is from the United States, but Glasmacher said that’s mainly because of uncertainties over travel planning in the past two years.  

While curious onlookers filed through the halls of FRIB April 23, researchers from the Berkeley Center for Theoretical Physics, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Louisiana State University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Mississippi and other institutions across the nation were already in East Lansing, setting up FRIB experiments.  

“The demand from the world science community is extremely high,” FRIB science director Brad Sherrill said.  

 

Wings of existence 

In a sneak preview of the kind of discoveries that will be made at FRIB, researchers at NSCL discovered a new isotope of magnesium, the eighth-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, in January this year. 

The recipe for Earth’s abundant supply of magnesium is pretty simple: add three helium nuclei to a carbon nucleus. Any large, aging star will reach the needed temperature, but only when it blows up into a supernova.  

The isotope found at MSU was the lightest form of magnesium yet seen: magnesium-18, with 12 protons in the nucleus — which is what makes it magnesium — but only six neutrons instead of the 12 found in the stable form familiar on Earth.  

That’s the atomic equivalent of a teeter-totter with six kids on one end and 12 on another. Such unstable isotopes aren’t “keen on existing,” according to a cheeky MSU post announcing the discovery. To be exact, magnesium-18 lasts about a sextillionth of a second before it has a combination nervous breakdown and identity crisis. It frantically runs the Periodic Table, ejecting two protons from its nucleus to become neon-16, then ejecting two more protons to become oxygen-14. (Change the number of neutrons in an atom and you get an isotope of the same element; change the number of protons and you get a different element altogether.) 

“We try and understand processes that occur on the time scale of a zeptosecond,” MSU researcher Kaitlin Cook said.  “That’s a thousandth billionth billionth of a second. Even for a physicist, that’s insane.” 

The fleeting glimpse at magnesium-18 goes into the growing bank of information on isotopes “at the very limits of existence,” in the words of Kyle Brown, an assistant professor of chemistry at the FRIB. 

“We’re adding drops to a bucket, but they’re important drops,” Brown said. “We can put our names on this one, the whole team can. And I can tell my parents that I helped discover this nucleus that nobody else has seen before.” 

When FRIB is at full power, Brown said, his team will be able to “reach the wings of existence.” 

He was not just being poetic. A diagonal smudge, like the body of a moth, is often drawn to represent the Earth’s 280 or so stable isotopes on a graph. At FRIB, that smudge will grow huge wings — a wide-open field of a thousand isotopes or more, out of a possible 10,000, that FRIB’s high-energy accelerator will force into existence on Earth for the first time. 

“Since we have a higher intensity beam, we’ll be able to produce something that’s quite rare, quite far from stability,” Brown said. “FRIB is going to open up new opportunities that haven’t been seen yet, here on the planet.” 

 

Gold standard 

Roughly half of the elements heavier than iron are made in rare, distant and spectacular processes such as the collision of two neutron stars. The high-energy collisions at FRIB will briefly approximate those extreme conditions. 

“Gold is a great example,” MSU researcher Kaitlin Cook explained. “You look at the ring on your finger and go, ‘Oh my God, that was made in a neutron star,’ which is kind of wild.” 

“We only find one kind of gold on Earth, but there are actually about 60 different kinds of gold possible,” Brad Sherrill said. “Why aren’t there 61, or maybe 100, versions of gold? I don’t know. That’s a good question. That’s what we want to understand. Maybe there are, and we don’t know about it.” 

MSU physics Professor Dean Lee studies fundamental interactions between nucleons (neutrons and protons), from the “two-body problem” (when two nucleons come into contact) to writhing cat-bags of nuclei with 50, 70 or more protons and neutrons. 

The sheer computing power needed to predict the interactions of so many forces and particles pushes Lee’s team to the edge of supercomputer technology, which is edging toward its next frontier, quantum computing. (No time for footnotes here; check out the next “Ant-Man” movie, “Quantumania,” for details.) 

 

“One of the most exciting things about FRIB is that there’s going to be literally thousands of new things that we’ll find,” Lee said. “What are the universal laws? What are the guiding principles behind what’s going on? And what are the exceptional, the really weird cases?” 

Gravity means nothing in Lee’s subatomic world, where other forces like the strong and weak nuclear forces rule, but his attitude is down to earth. 

“I like to think of nuclear physics as subatomic materials science,” Lee said. “We’re actually looking to see what’s going on at the center of every atom. It’s not some abstract exercise. It’s not something you just make up. It’s at the heart of every atom, which is the stuff we’re made of. It’s essentially everything, it’s you and me.” 

Kaitlin Cook, an assistant professor of nuclear physics at FRIB, studies collisions of atomic nuclei. She joined the faculty in 2020, attracted by the caliber of MSU’s nuclear physics program and the prospect of working with FRIB. 

“One of the purposes of FRIB is to explore the processes that happen in colliding neutron stars, in supernovae, in these explosive astrophysical scenarios,” Cook explained. “Some of the isotopes at FRIB aren’t even found there, either, and that’s really cool.” 

Let that last sentence sink in for a zeptosecond. It’s possible that some of the isotopes created at FRIB will only exist a couple of blocks down the street from the MSU Dairy Store, and nowhere else in the entire FRIB-ing universe. 

Can we up the ante even further? It seems we can. 

In a spectacular convergence of two mega-projects designed to expand human knowledge, FRIB is going on line in the same year that the most powerful tool in the history of astronomy, the James Webb Space Telescope, is launching its own operations. 

“One of the fantastic things about the James Webb Telescope is that it can look at stars, even stars in other galaxies, and look at their chemical compositions,” Sherill said. “Both the Webb telescope and FRIB put us on the cusp of a new understanding. The two are connected.” 

Artemis Spyrou, a professor of physics at FRIB, already works with astrophysicists to probe the nature of matter. 

“We see something, either with our telescopes or by analyzing meteorites — everything we observe in the universe —and create models to reproduce it,” she said. “I can’t predict exactly what we’ll get from the James Webb, but we’ll get a whole new set of data we’ll need to interpret. We’re pushing the limits of what two different fields can do, and then you combine those two together, it’s an exciting time for the whole field.” 

“We’re in an age of scientific discovery,” Sherill agreed. “We get the benefit in Michigan that we can watch it happen here on the MSU campus, in our own backyard.” 

 

Abstract to concrete 

The U.S. Energy Department doesn’t allow photography of FRIB’s linear accelerator, but it’s no great loss. The paper-clip-shaped track, where nuclei are accelerated to more than half the speed of light, has all the visual appeal of a half-sized freight train stuck in a terminal, only without the graffiti. 

From the outside, the accelerator looks like a string of 30-odd shipping containers — the “cryo-boxes” at the heart of FRIB. Inside the boxes, isotope beams whiz through superconducting tunnels called radio frequency cavities, on their way to target areas where they’ll be smashed, crunched and otherwise fragmented into rare isotopes. 

The difference between a home refrigerator and the FRIB’s cryo-boxes is, literally, a question of degree. 

“It follows a refrigeration cycle, like you’d normally see in your home refrigerator,” MSU cryogenics expert Jon Howard explained. Instead of keeping Eggo Waffles and Mrs. T’s Pierogies fresh, FRIB’s accelerator requires temperatures low enough to freeze just about everything in the entire universe, except helium — 4.5 degrees Kelvin, close to absolute zero. 

Howard, a native of Owosso, didn’t mind explaining to his mother-in-law that he doesn’t freeze human beings — that’s cryonics — so he was happy to explain how the cryo-boxes bathe the radio frequency cavities in liquid helium. 

“Without the super-cooled temperatures they produce, the accelerator couldn’t reach the speed needed to smash the nuclei into rare isotopes,” Howard said. 

It takes very two large cold boxes to bring the helium to the needed temperature, and thereby hangs a tale. 

If you were driving along Mt. Hope Avenue on the morning of August 10, 2016, chances are your milk run to Meijer was delayed by a massive flatbed truck that blotted out the entire roadway, both eastbound and westbound, preceded by energy crews pulling utility wires to the side. 

That was FRIB’s 100,000-pound upper cold box, which uses liquid nitrogen to pre-cool the helium to about 60 degrees Kelvin, or -352 degrees Fahrenheit, and can be seen in its fully installed glory on the cover of this issue of City Pulse. 

The box was built in Oklahoma and took 10 days to travel 900 miles to MSU. It could only move in the daytime, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., for safety reasons. To avoid the Chicago area, it rode the Lake Michigan ferry SS Badger across Lake Michigan. To install it, the project team had to rent the only 100-ton crane in the Midwest. 

Positioned next to the upper cold box is another 100,000-pound colossus, delivered to FRIB Oct. 27 of the same year: the lower, or the horizontal, cold box, where the helium is cooled to about 4.5 Kelvin, just above absolute zero.  

FRIB presented Michigan’s pipefitters, concrete workers, electricians and other tradespeople with a civil construction project like no other in the state’s history. 

Glasmacher said about 80 percent of FRIB’s component parts were made in the United States, and the rest from Canada and Italy. 

Directly above FRIB’s linear accelerator is the “rack room,” a 500-foot-long array of densely tangled utility spaghetti and electronic control devices. Row after row of racks — 800 in all — are stitched from stem to stern by 23,000 cables with a total length of 500 miles. Cool water is piped under the floor to dissipate the heat. 

The cyclotron “stopper,” a massive double platter where superfast ion beams spiral into a slower speed for researchers to examine, is housed in a 165-ton yoke of steel poured in Bay City, Michigan. 

Over 240 magnets of various types focus and steer the beam as it zips along on a paper-clip shaped track.  

In the fragment separator, a 90-meter-long chain of magnets where the nuclei are sorted out, one of the magnets weights 120 tons and another weighs 180 tons. 

Glasmacher gave a special nod to the hardhats who brought the sci-fi world of FRIB into reality. 

“It’s easy to have fancy ideas,” Glasmacher said. “But to make something, for real, you need welders, pipefitters, the people who drive the concrete trucks at 3 a.m. because it has to go on for 24 hours straight.” 

The first of three epic FRIB concrete pours took place from 3 a.m. to sunrise on July 23, 2014, when 140 trucks dumped 1,400 cubic yards of concrete at the FRIB site. In December 2014, about 300 trucks laid 2,700 cubic yards into the “target area” where the ion beam hits the target. Finally, 350 truckloads swarmed to the site for a 25-hour March 2015 pour that laid 3,563 cubic yards under the linear accelerator tunnel, some of it 14 feet thick. 

 

Watching the detectors 

The technology of particle accelerators is a $500 billion a year industry in the United States, embedded in everything from cancer diagnosis and treatment to making cell phones, and FRIB is at the cutting edge. 

“In nuclear physics, we are really good at building devices to measure stuff that comes out — especially radiation detectors,” physics Professor Paul Guéye said.  

The researchers at FRIB depend on their detectors the way James Bond depends on Q’s gadgets. The nuclear interactions scientists breathlessly anticipate happen so fast, on so small a scale, that it’s a miracle anyone but Zarathustra can detect them.  

At FRIB, physics Professor Paul Guèye and his team will work with a massive stack of plastic cylinders built by undergraduates at MSU called a “modular neutron array,” or MoNA. Its companion piece is the Large Institutional Scintillator Array, or LISA. See what they did there? “Of course, when you have a Mona, you need a Lisa,” Guèye said with a grin. “We’re painting nuclei, after all.” 

Jaideep Singh, the researcher who is working on the first FRIB experiment next week, gave a lot of love to his detectors at the April 23 open house. The following description is crude, but it’s what the Department of Energy deserves for not letting us take a picture. 

First, Singh pointed to a cylinder the size of a giant bass drum with dozens of robot lampreys sucking on the front. 

“That detector measures the flash of light,” Singh said. 

Then he pointed to a curved metal brow beetling above the drum.  

“If a neutron flies off, that cylindrical shell will detect the neutron,” Singh said. 

Then he pointed to a boring square thing. 

“The remaining parts get implanted into this box,” he concluded. 

Such technology seems hopelessly specialized, but when it comes to the potential for “spin-offs” from FRIB’s state-of-the-art hardware, detectors are red hot. 

Detector technology from linear accelerators has already saved countless lives. Guéye cited one “fantastic idea” spun off from nuclear physics detectors that is opening new frontiers in cancer treatment. 

To fuel their abnormal rate of growth, cancerous tumors consume up to 30 percent more sugar than non-cancerous tissue. Powerful PET scans detect cancer by homing in on radioactive sugars.  

“You can tune these radio tracers so that some of them go to the thyroid, to other places in the body, and allow you to identify hot spots in a body, using a detector we use in nuclear physics to detect radiation,” Guéye said. 

FRIB’s high tech has nearly limitless potential for clinical applications as well. Other forms of technology developed in particle accelerators “melt” cancer with beams of protons. Traditional forms of radiation rely on electrons or photons that also attack tumors. “But they’re so small they bounce all over the place,” Guèye said, and that can harm healthy tissue. “Protons are so big they go straight to the target, get tired and huff and puff, and stop and dump their energy on the cancer DNA.” 

Data gathered at FRIB may also help develop and refine another effective cancer treatment, carbon ion therapy, in which beams of heavy, energy-rich carbon nuclei are aimed at tumors deep in the body. 

Many of the isotopes made at FRIB will be given to a national isotope program, also run by the energy Department. The news pages posted by that program, the National Isotope Development Center, are stacked with study after study detailing promising new isotopes that target various kinds of cancer. 

Medical uses of rare isotopes get the bulk of attention, for good reason, but isotopes discovered at FRIB have the potential to change any number of games in any number of leagues, from agriculture to aerospace to electronics.  

The radio tracers and detectors that fill FRIB’s corridors have the potential to unlock a myriad of natural processes, helping farmers optimize nutrient uptake from soil and track fungal growth and subsoil chemistry. Data on the decay of nuclei gathered at FRIB may provide information about how to destroy nuclear waste that otherwise will sit around for millennia. 

“We push the limits to do what we do,” Guéye said. “Most of the time, the technology is not there, so we collaborate with companies around the world. That’s how we got the TV — it was an experiment using an accelerator.” 

 

‘We’re finally here’ 

Artemis Spyrou can’t shake the memory of many awkward moments in a lobby or on a plane, when strangers would ask, “What do you do?” and she would tell them she’s a nuclear physicist.  

“Either there’s a big pause, and there’s no follow-up question, or they’d say, ‘So, you make bombs?’ That always bothered me.” 

But that has changed in recent years, and not just because widespread advances in nuclear medicine have touched so many lives. Spyrou is thrilled at public enthusiasm for FRIB at MSU, even among those who don’t fully grasp what goes on there — which, let’s face it, is pretty much everyone.  

“It’s been such a pleasant surprise to see so much support from the community, this sense of pride to have such a facility,” Spyrou said. “You could feel it at the open house — the energy, the excitement.” 

By carrying out the DOE Science Office’s directive “to discover, explore and understand all forms of nuclear matter,” FRIB is tapping into one of humankind’s most basic urges. 

Paul Guéye recalled nights in his native Senegal, looking at the sky with his twin brother and wondering what the stars were made of. 

“I’ve always been curious about how everything connects,” Guèye said. “My mind would connect things like the ripples on water after you throw a stone, and the relief circles on a mountain in a map. Unfortunately, when you go higher and higher in education, your field gets narrower and narrower, and I don’t like that.” 

But Guèye found a way to specialize without specializing. What could be more universal than atomic nuclei?  

“We’re all the same, but we’re all different,” Guèye said. “Yes, carbon is carbon, but we look different from each other. Atoms are slightly different, our DNA is different, and that all goes back to the interactions of protons, neutrons and electrons.” 

Glasmacher is a clear-eyed, even sardonic, observer of life. He admitted there was an element of theater in the FRIB’s much-ballyhooed “countdown” and opening, which he said was timed to coincide with spring graduation and “full hotels.” 

But when it comes to FRIB’s mission, the stars fill his eyes again. 

“I like hope, because it’s so dismal without hope,” he said with a note of melancholy. 

It’s been 23 years since the scientific community developed the concept of FRIB in 1999, 13 years since MSU and the Department of Energy signed a cooperative agreement to build FRIB, and eight years since FRIB broke ground at MSU. 

“Now we’re finally here,” Glasmacher said. “I’m convinced that what we did is important for the nation, but it also makes me much more hopeful for humankind. We got people from all over the world, ACLU members and NRA members, people who want to wear masks and people who don’t want to wear masks, and we come here, put all that aside and focus on the work. We do something none of us could do ourselves, and do it safely and with respect. And that makes me hopeful.” 

Kaitlin Cook said the basic impulse behind the public’s support and enthusiasm is not new.  

“Humanity has decided that they like knowing how the universe works,” Cook said. “We’re curious about how we got here, and we’ve been like this forever, going back millennia. Humanity has decided it’s good and important, like art. We don’t just do things to live. We do things to understand.” 

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