Revenue and Rare Isotopes: Going Nuclear in East Lansing
With the help of advanced accelerator technology, researchers at Michigan State University
’s (MSU) National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory
(NSCL) are in the business of creating and studying rare isotopes—elemental particles with extra protons or neutrons that rarely exist on earth.
In some cases, the isotopes exist for just a fraction of second before they return back to their “normal” states.
Scientists create them by using MSU’s accelerator to boost ions or electrons to a high speed and colliding the beams of energetic particles with a particular target. The accelerators also produce energetic beams used to treat cancer patients and study the effect of cosmic rays in electronic devices in satellites and on humans during space flight.
NSCL at MSU
The NSCL is the largest campus-based nuclear science facility in the world, a major international attraction to nuclear scientists and a big money-maker for the region.
Former MSU university president, John Hannah, obtained the funding for the design and construction of a cyclotron in the mid 1960s. Now, the NSCL houses more than 300 employees, including 28 faculty members and about 100 students, half of whom are doctoral candidates.
Though the isotope business is confusing to most folks (remember that Periodic Table from high school?), the NCSL is a major international attraction for the science-minded.
The NCSL boasts 700 users (researchers) from 100 institutions in 35 countries. As one of the few institutions with PhD programs in nuclear chemistry and accelerator physics, MSU educates about 10 percent of the nation’s nuclear scientists, second only to the production rate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“This is about Michigan’s transition to the knowledge economy,” says NCSL’s Geoff Koch about the value of having the NCSL in East Lansing. “That’s important, and this is high-end basic research and we’re internationally competitive in that.”Maintaining the Talent Vortex
The fact that the NSCL attracts elite researchers and students from around the world helps build quite a reputation for the facility.
“I feel very lucky to work with an outstanding group of researchers and educators,” says Brad Sherrill, NSCL associate director of research. “Most days are full of grinding work, but having the chance to discuss science and perform experiments with my colleagues helps make it all worth while. In the process, we discover important things that no one has known before. That provides a sense of progress and contribution to our body of knowledge.”
“When I was an undergraduate student in Iowa, a well-known scientist who was involved in the Manhattan Project and later as a prominent peace activist, Bernard Feld, visited our campus,” says Sherrill. “I had a chance to talk to him. I asked him where the best schools to study nuclear physics were. He said immediately: Michigan State University. When I visited MSU for the first time in 1979, I was shown the cyclotron lab and have been there ever since.”
Top-of-the-line talent, access to top quality equipment and innovative minds (and machines) keep MSU’s coveted scientists in the area.
“I have been on the MSU faculty since 1991,” says Sherrill. “Since then, we have developed the tool for producing and studying rare isotopes a great deal. For example, we used to need to produce thousands of atoms per second to be able to study them. Now we have improved the tools so much we can perform experiments if we get a few atoms, period.”
Sherrill says the Cyclotron lab also provides an immeasurable community resource.
“There are the obvious things, like providing 200 high skilled jobs, bringing in nearly $20 million per year to the local economy, and providing a fantastic educational resource for students,” he says. “Something less obvious, perhaps, is that having one of the world’s leading laboratories in nuclear science attracts the best researchers and students from around the world. The ideas they bring enhance the whole enterprise at MSU.”
MSU and East Lansing certainly benefit from all the attention. In 2006, MSU grabbed national and national attention when the National Science Foundation
renewed more than $100 million in operating grants for the NSCL.
"This center acts both literally and figuratively as a magnet,” said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin
(D-Detroit) at the time. “It draws top scientists from around the world. It brings the brightest students and professors to Michigan State. It attracts businesses and creates great jobs to this area and for our state. So this lab is a tremendous asset to Michigan and to the nation."Glimpse Into the Future
MSU is now clamoring for
a $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) lab being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy
The new facility would bring $1 billion in economic activity to the area
and 400 new jobs to Michigan, generating $187 million in new tax revenues over the next 20 years, according to an economic and fiscal impact analysis by Anderson Economic Group
“We are in the process of writing a proposal for the next generation of rare isotope research equipment,” Sherrill says. “This is based on the tools and techniques we have developed here over the past 10 or so years. The new facility will be more than a thousand times more powerful than what we have now.”
If Michigan got the FRIB, it would also create hundreds of construction jobs and likely generate spin-off ventures in materials science, medical diagnosis and treatment, national security and other sectors.
Until MSU gets word on the FRIB, the NSCL will stay on the innovation battleground and attract international visitors who are more than willing to pump their tourism dollars into the area.
This spring, the lab hosted a series of meetings reflecting the facility’s broad reach. The user meeting attracted researchers from all over the world; the international nuclear structure conference attracted researchers who wanted to discuss atomic nuclei research; and the third conference gave alumni the chance to present their ideas in front of their peers.
“We have folks coming who work on Wall Street, have founded their own companies, work in medical physics, etc.,” Koch says. “It’s an example of the practical benefit of training here, and how investing in basic nuclear science pays dividends far beyond universities.”