A Rare Research Opportunity

professors and students to study rare isotopes at future department of energy facility

student-reseachWestmont students and faculty will be able to conduct cutting-edge research on rare nuclear isotopes when the Department of Energy builds a $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University in the next decade. MSU and Westmont have drafted a memorandum of understanding outlining their research collaboration, and Westmont has joined the Alliance of Undergraduate Rare Isotope Research Institutions, which will send a representative to the Rare Isotope Research and Education Board of FRIB.

“Our students will have a great oppor-tunity to work with researchers from all over the world at a first-class facility,” says Warren Rogers, physics professor and inter-im academic dean. “They’ll get a glimpse of what a career in science involves.”

FRIB will accelerate particles to near the speed of light, and scientists will direct them onto a target element where collisions cause them to fragment into radioactive or rare isotopes. One of the few places where these rare isotopes occur naturally is the flash of a supernova explosion. Rogers says the radioactive isotopes aren’t particularly dangerous and don’t live very long.

“This research will help us answer questions about the creation of the elements in the universe,” Rogers says. “How did the initial hydrogen and helium transform over time into heavy, rich elements such as iron, silicon, magnesium, oxygen and carbon that make up the Earth?”

It’s not a practical question, and researchers don’t know what technologies may be developed from these experiments. “But pursuing these kinds of fundamental questions about nature has always been meaningful to humankind,” Rogers says.

The partnership with MSU is nothing new. Rogers conducts NSF-funded research at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at MSU in collaboration with faculty and students from eight other colleges and universities that use the Modular Neutron Array (MoNA). In 2002, Westmont students built 16 of the MoNA detectors and helped assemble the entire array. The instrument detects neutrons, the neutral particles in the core of atoms, that result from the breakup of rare isotopes, measuring both their speed and direction to reconstruct the details of their disintegration.

student-researcher1Not only did Westmont students help build MoNA, but they also constructed the Westmont Cosmic Muon Detector Array (CMDA), using MoNA as a model. After developing, testing and calibrating the array, they used it for research, tracking the flux of cosmic muons over the Santa Barbara sky. But the November Tea Fire left the CMDA in ashes along with the rest of Rogers’ Westmont-based research.

“The fire burned down our building, which was a terribly disappointing loss for our physics and engineering program and for my work,” Rogers says. “So the DOE announcement about the FRIB facility to be built at MSU is incredibly encouraging news. Our MSU-based research now has a much more promising future.”

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