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MSU holds ribbon cutting ceremony for particle accelerator

Workers prepare Michigan State University's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.
Michigan State University
Workers prepare Michigan State University's Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

Public officials cut the ribbon Monday for the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams on Michigan State University’s campus.

Scholars hope the heavy-ion accelerator at the facility, also called the FRIB, can hold the key to advancements in fields ranging from nuclear energy to cancer treatment.

Equipment at the facility crashes atoms into each other at half the speed of light to produce rare isotopes sometimes only found in places like deep space. Isotopes are variants of atoms -- each has the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons.

The FRIB can make different kinds of isotopes for various uses.

“We can make designer isotopes when medical folks tell us, ‘I need this element because it metabolizes in certain cells more quickly, and then it decays in there and kills the cancer,” FRIB director Thomas Glasmacher told reporters after the ribbon cutting.

Another possible function of the FRIB involves recreating conditions from the beginning of the universe.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said it will make Michigan a leader in high-tech research and innovation.

“It’ll have [a] 4-billion-dollar impact on our state economy and will be a talent magnet that offers unparalleled research and learning opportunities for some of the brightest minds in America and around the world,” Whitmer said.

MSU’s heavy-ion accelerator is the most powerful in the world, according to the school.

“We are not going to be overtaken by China or by others who are equally hungry to be in the lead. We have to invest in order to be in the lead,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said at the ribbon cutting.

In addition to a $94.5 million dollar investment from the State of Michigan, Granholm’s department is supporting research at the FRIB. It’s benefitting from what one lawmaker estimated as $635 million in secured federal funding.

Officials at Monday’s ceremony repeatedly referenced the large investment in research from both the state and federal government that it took to build it. They said they don’t need to grasp everything about nuclear physics to know it’s an important investment.

“I don’t have to blow my brain up trying to understand this. I just need to support you and I do that through appropriations and through my votes. There will be hundreds of permanent jobs for scientists and engineer and other staff during this,” Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-14) said, thanking those who got the FRIB built.

Lawrence pointed out the FRIB also has plans to collaborate with minority-serving institutions.

The learning opportunities also excited Congressman Tim Walberg (R-7), who joked about fighting as far back as the 1990s to beat Illinois when it came to research projects.

“The most exciting thing for me is not -- and it’s wonderful -- all the business start ups that will take place, all of the scientists from around the world that who will come here, but more importantly, all of the students who will have a practical experience,” Walberg said.

Speakers Monday also related research at the FRIB to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.

“I think the world is getting a real wakeup call on the issue of nuclear physics lately,” Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-8) said. “Because I now have 13-year-olds asking me about the prospect of nuclear weapons being used in Europe and because of the demand signal on energy and the need to diversify our energy sources.”

Both Walberg and Slotkin explained how studies at the FRIB could have national security implications.

“They can research ways to do nuclear energy in a safer way, in a more reasonable way. We’ve seen progress over the years in facilities across the world, and I think that this facility is going to help us do it in an even more safe way and identify some of the national security risks that other facilities might have,” Slotkin said.

The FRIB is designated a "user facility" within the U.S. Energy Department’s Office of Science. That means researchers can use the space for their own specific studies.

FRIB leadership said the facility is already booked for the next year.