Michigan State FRIB Experiments Begin This Week
EAST LANSING — Michigan State University thinks its facility for rare isotope beams will open the door to new discoveries — and scientists could find the first key this week.
Although the FRIB officially opened last Monday, smaller preparatory experiments have been underway for months. However, Wednesday marks the first time scientists have blasted a particle beam from FRIB’s 400-kilowatt linear accelerator at full power. When this beam collides with a target element, such as magnesium or aluminum, the element’s protons and neutrons separate, forming new variations called isotopes. The rare variations of these isotopes are what the FRIB will unlock.
This week’s experiment is part of a study on the life of nuclei and their decay. The team of scientists involved includes representatives from FRIB, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Mississippi State University, University of State of Florida, Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, University of North Carolina, Ursinus College, and University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Ultimately, the group hopes to answer questions posed by the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee, which advises the Department of Energy, said Mitch Allmond, a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Among these questions: How is subatomic matter organized? How is visible matter created and how does it evolve? And how can nuclear physics be used for the benefit of society?
Vandana Tripathi, assistant professor of physics at FSU on the FRIB team, likened their work to a violent car accident. The particle beam is shot at high speed into a target, like a car hitting a cement slab. The protons and neutrons of the target element separate and scientists observe the new variations – the rare isotopes – which emit radiation as they decay.
Scientists are like accident scene investigators who use the wreckage to infer information about the collision.
“It has a big impact on the basic understanding of nuclear physics,” she said.
After: Michigan State FRIB Science, Explained
The proposal by Tripathi and his team was selected from a group of hundreds submitted by scientists around the world. The proposals went through technical and safety reviews, staff review, and review by the program’s advisory committee, which ultimately made a recommendation to FRIB Laboratory Director Thomas Glasmacher.
“History has shown us that there are applications”
Research from the FRIB could have far-reaching impacts on science.
Although the first team of researchers did not embark on their experiment specifically looking for discoveries that change society, their work could contribute to major breakthroughs in the future.
“Nuclear physics has long found applications in many everyday life scenarios,” said Ben Crider, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Mississippi State and a member of the group leading the first experiment.
He points to the tools used in the medical profession, such as radioactive detectors and tracers that can help with medical imaging, all of which were developed using nuclear physics.
“What we find may not be applicable…but as we develop new technologies and learn more about how nucleons interact, history has shown us that there are applications.”
Just as valuable as the scientific discoveries made at FRIB are the experiments that will be offered to students there, Tripathi said.
Physics can be a difficult field to attract students, she said. But a big, new facility like FRIB could do a lot to nudge more students into science and technology.
“It will also be an opportunity for human resource development,” Tripathi said.