The program hopes to be capturing leftover isotopes by next year.
Michigan State University started a nuclear physics program in 1958, and within three years had a National Science Foundation-funded cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator. The world’s first superconducting cyclotron, the K500, became operational at MSU in 1982 and upgraded capabilities.
MSU’s nuclear physics graduate program has been top-ranked in the U.S. for 28 years, awarding 10% of the nuclear physics doctorate degrees awarded in the country.
But despite that rich history, Glasmacher said he wasn’t overly confident as MSU decided to compete for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s request for proposals to construct a facility for rare isotope beams.
“We sent in a 700-page proposal that June, and then we had to go to Maryland and present about 2,000 slides,” he said. “They broke us into groups and put us on video.”
The proposal had powerful, bipartisan allies in Congress: then-U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat; and Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who later became chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Sen. Levin would always tell me, ‘Now listen, I can’t win this for you. But I can give you a fair chance,’ ” Glasmacher said.
With support from the state of Michigan, corporations and unions, MSU won the bid for $550 million in federal funds to build FRIB in December 2008. The state and university would contribute nearly $200 million more, much of it involving MSU campus property.
“The industrial infrastructure we have, and also the workforce we have, it was key to our success,” Glasmacher said.
‘A serendipitous byproduct’ — microchip testing
When the federal government provides $550 million to build your facility, and an additional $120 million a year to help operate it, when it asks for your help with a problem, you do what you can.
The Department of Energy’s Office of Science last year asked FRIB whether it could help with a pressing national concern: microchip testing capacity and capability.
“Cosmic rays are heavy ions that bombard us all the time here on Earth,” Glasmacher said. “We are exposed to them, but for chips, which are getting smaller and smaller, they can be damaged when a heavy ion hits a piece of silicon just right.”
That’s problematic for the U.S. military, its satellites, vehicles and other equipment. But also for commercial satellites, cars, and airplanes.
Now, companies such as Boeing, Texas Instruments and Raytheon are using FRIB’s facilities to test microchips. It’s led to a whole new niche of study: corporate-supported students gaining the education and skills to test microchips, skills with nearly immediate marketability.
With the need ever increasing, the federal government recently granted MSU $14 million to refurbish its old K500 cyclotron from the early 1980s to facilitate even more microchip testing.
The next generation of cellphones, so-called 6G, will apparently be satellite-based, Glasmacher said. “So they have got to do many more satellites for the next generation of cellphones.”
That means more microchips and more chip testing.
“It’s a serendipitous byproduct,” he said.
Creating future scientists — and finding the occasional prodigy
Maya Wallach is a FRIB veteran. After a summer internship there, she came to MSU to study and work with FRIB as a student last fall. She has spent last summer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and this summer at Fermilab in Illinois. She started her master’s degree coursework at MSU last semester, and wrote a computer program that uses available data to predict the size of neutrons. That program is now at the foundation of the work of a FRIB-affilated Ph.D. student. “Now we have a full-blown research program that is spawned from” Maya’s computer program, said Paul Gueye, an associate professor of physics at MSU.Maya Wallach is 17 years old.
She’s an unusually gifted example of FRIB’s focus on providing exposure and opportunity for pre-college students to nuclear physics.
Growing up in a family of educators in Fredricksburg, Virginia, Maya always displayed a thirst for knowledge and a knack for computer programming going back to third grade.
She won a regional science fair as a high school freshman by developing a computer program that studied mass shooters’ manifestos and then Twitter data to screen for potential future shooters.
After developing an interest in nuclear and particle physics — but not yet having the advanced math capabilities necessary to fully understand it — Maya wrote computer programs that helped advance her interest.
“What about it appealed to me? I’m not really sure, to be honest,” Maya said.
At that point in her exploration, Maya had gone beyond where her parents could take her educationally, Maya’s mother, Kenya Wallach, said. “I try to get my kids to have ‘educated others’ whenever they have something that is of deep interest to them,” she said.
The mother reached out to area physicists, and a couple at Virginia Union University who knew Gueye told the Wallachs about him and FRIB. After some online meetings, Maya attended FRIB’s PING program, Physicists Inspiring the Next Generation, a two-week summer program exposing high schoolers from around the country to nuclear physics, using undergraduate students at MSU as mentors.
Seeing her potential, Gueye took her under his wing. He initially gave her very elementary physics material, and after she breezed through that, increased the difficulty to material he typically presents to second-year undergraduate students. Maya kept devouring the information with aptitude.
“It was at that point I realized we have somebody here who is not normal,” Gueye said.
That’s when he reached out to Maya’s parents with a startling proposal.
“He told me, ‘I think Maya needs to be done with high school. I need her at Michigan State,’ ” Kenya Wallach recalled.Maya was in the summer before her sophomore year of high school.
“Of course, I put it into Maya’s hands,” her mother said. “Maya had to make the decision whether she wanted to do this or not. Yes, she was 14 at the time, but it’s her journey; not mine.
“She decided that was something she wanted to explore.”
It helped that because of COVID-19 restrictions, Maya finished high school — and the first year-plus of MSU academic coursework — at home with her family’s nearby support.
Gueye expects that by next spring, Maya will be completed or nearly completed with her master’s degree in physics at Michigan State.
Where are her academic interests leading her professionally? Like many young people around her age, Maya doesn’t know yet.
“I try to keep an open mind with what I want to be,” she said.
Expanding what is possible in ‘the FRIB era’
Since beginning experiments in May 2022, FRIB has created 200 rare isotope beams, supporting nearly 500 experiments. Two research papers from those first experiments have already been published in scientific journals.
The facility utilizes 400 Michigan State staff, 200 students and scores more researchers from around the U.S. and world. FRIB last month announced a collaboration with the French government’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique to establish the International Research Laboratory on Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics at FRIB. Two French scientists will be stationed in East Lansing long-term to conduct ongoing research.
“The French are really good at nuclear physics, and they want to associate with us and put some of their people here, some of their government-paid researchers, at MSU to make discoveries,” Glasmacher said. “We welcome the collaboration. We need the best people in the world to make the best discoveries.”
The isotope beam typically operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with requests for “beam time” outpacing availability by about 3-to-1. An international panel of experts in nuclear physics helps sift through proposals and prioritize requests.
All told, FRIB has meant a nearly $1.7 billion investment in Michigan, with ongoing annual support from the federal government of $120 million a year, with more than 80% of that expenditure and economic impact staying in the Great Lakes State, Glasmacher said.
As FRIB expands what can now be known about atomic nuclei and the origins of elements in the universe, FRIB officials have already begun planning for an even more powerful rare isotope beam, years down the road, that will enable even more discovery.
“In a lot of the meetings with scientists, the discussion has moved toward what kind of new science can we do now that FRIB is available — even using the words, ‘in the FRIB era,’ ” Severin said.
“So it’s my impression it has made quite a stir in the community.”
Contact Keith Matheny: email@example.com.