Cutting-edge Accelerator Project Lures Top Minds, Creates Jobs

Cutting-edge Accelerator Project Lures Top Minds, Creates Jobs
The Detroit Free Press/January 18, 2011

By Lori Higgins

EAST LANSING -- It will be two years before ground is broken on the $600-million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University. But already this haven for nuclear physics research, projected to inject $1 billion of economic activity into the state, is having an impact.
   
Some of the top minds in science have been recruited to MSU. Students in the nuclear physics graduate program are energized. And that program? It's now tops in the nation.

All this despite a lengthy construction timetable that won't have the facility running until 2020.

When it's done, it will house the world's most powerful heavy-ion accelerator, which will be 1,000 times more powerful than existing accelerators at MSU and capable of creating intense beams of rare isotopes. The implications are enormous, and the project is expected to lead to cutting-edge research in nuclear physics and medicine.

MSU already has gained international prominence with its cyclotron lab. But the new facility isn't just more powerful -- it is to the cyclotron what modern-day vehicles are to the Model T.

"When FRIB is done we'll discover stuff we can't even imagine now," said Thomas Glasmacher, project manager.
Top scientists flock to MSU as accelerator project ramps up

It took the better part of a year for John Weisend to decide to uproot his family and leave his job at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California and move to Michigan. But in the end, he decided it was worth it to be part of the launch of one of the world's most powerful research machines.

The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) "will in fact be the world-class place to do heavy-ion physics. And it's very exciting to be part of making that possible," said Weisend, cryogenics group leader at the FRIB and an engineering professor at MSU since April.

A significant part of planning for the facility, which will allow scientists to conduct cutting-edge research about the universe, was attracting some of the best minds in science, and MSU certainly landed a coup with Weisend's hiring. He's one of just a few experts on cryogenics engineering in the world, said Thomas Glasmacher, project manager for the FRIB.

There are others -- experts in their fields -- who have made Michigan their home. Most, Glasmacher said, are aiming to be part of something meaningful.

"We hear that a lot -- 'I want to be a part of something that means something, where you can see results.' It kind of inspires them a little," Glasmacher said.

The FRIB will create isotope beams, atomic nuclei that researchers will be able to use to answer some basic questions about the universe, such as why there's more matter than antimatter, why stars explode and what holds atoms together. But the isotopes also can be used to improve national security, to make quicker diagnoses of illnesses and to treat cancer.

In December 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy selected MSU as the site for the coveted $600-million facility, the only one like it in the U.S.

MSU beat out the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, which at one point had been favored to win the selection. It couldn't have come at a better time for Michigan, which was being battered as Congress debated whether to aid the Detroit-based auto industry. An economic-impact study completed by the East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group predicted the project would generate $1 billion in economic activity in the state in "additional jobs, income and state tax revenue for decades to come."

"There's no other project that has the same dollar or economic impact as a single project as FRIB has, and will have, not just for Michigan State but for the state of Michigan," MSU President Lou Anna Simon said.

But the announcement was just the beginning of a long journey for the facility. Construction doesn't begin until 2013, and it won't be fully operational until 2020. The FRIB will adjoin the existing National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) on campus, near the MSU College of Law building and the Wharton Center for Performing Arts.

So far, the project has cleared environmental hurdles. The Department of Energy included $55 million in its 2011-12 budget request for preliminary design plans.

"The challenge is that it's one of a kind and you can't just order up some blueprints from someplace," Glasmacher said. "The design has to be carefully done, because if you mess it up, the facility will not deliver on its promise. So we can't mess it up."

Weisend's cryogenics team now is working to define what the refrigeration plant -- which will cool the system to liquid-helium temperatures -- will look like and how it will function.

Roger Roberts, a radiation transport staff physicist, and his team are addressing the radiation safety aspects of the facility. And Lynda Gauthier, project controls manager, leads a team whose job is to ensure tools are in place to provide early warning signs if the project is going off track.

MSU already has attained prominence for the NSCL, which for decades has made rare isotopes for research. But its accelerators aren't as powerful, and will be decommissioned when the FRIB opens.

Simon said the university ran the risk of having its existing technology become outdated if it hadn't gotten the FRIB. "If you're not on the cutting edge, you're losing ground," she said.

In the U.S. News & World Report rankings that come out each fall, MSU's nuclear graduate program always had ranked beneath the one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But in 2010, MSU took the No. 1 spot.

Glasmacher said the FRIB is the reason. "It's the only difference," he said.

The FRIB was announced around the time that student Jenna Smith of Indianapolis, was deciding where to attend graduate school.

"That certainly made my radar," said Smith, who earned an undergraduate degree from Rhodes College in Memphis.

She and other current graduate students likely will have earned their advanced degrees by the time the FRIB is in operation. But it was one of the reasons John Novak of Saline enrolled.

"I know that the graduate program will remain one of the best in the world for a long time," said Novak, whose undergraduate degree came from Western Michigan University. "When I say I'm from Michigan State, it's going to mean something."

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or lhiggins@freepress.com

Posted on Tuesday, January 18, 2011 (Archive on Monday, January 01, 0001)
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