This article was originally published on conversation (opens in new tab), The publication contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights,
sean lyddick (opens in new tab)Associate Professor of Chemistry, Michigan State University
artemis spiro (opens in new tab)Professor of Nuclear Physics, Michigan State University
Just a few hundred feet from where we’re sitting is a large metal chamber, devoid of air and draped with the wires needed to control the instruments inside. A beam of particles passes silently through the chamber’s interior at about half the speed of light until it smashes into a solid piece of material, resulting in rare isotopes being ripped apart.
It’s All Happening at the Rare Isotope Beams Facility (opens in new tab), or FRIB, which is operated by Michigan State University for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Beginning in May 2022, national and international teams of scientists converge at Michigan State University and begin conducting scientific experiments at FRIB with the goal of creating, isolating, and studying new isotopes. The experiments promised to provide new insights into the fundamental nature of the universe.
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We are two professors of nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics who study rare isotopes. Isotopes are, in a sense, different flavors of an element that have the same number of protons in their nuclei but different numbers of neutrons.
The accelerator at FRIB started out operating at low power, but when it finishes running at full power, it will be the most powerful heavy-ion accelerator on Earth. By accelerating heavy ions – electrically charged atoms of elements – the FRIB will allow scientists like us to create and study thousands of never-before-seen isotopes. Community of approximately 1,600 nuclear scientists from around the world (opens in new tab) Waiting a decade to start doing the science enabled by the new particle accelerator.
First experiment at FRIB (opens in new tab) To be completed in the summer of 2022. Even though the facility is currently operating at only a fraction of its full power, several scientific collaborations working at FRIB have already produced and detected nearly 100 rare isotopes. (opens in new tab), These early results are helping researchers learn about some of the rarest physics in the universe.
What is a rare isotope?
It takes an incredibly high amount of energy to produce most isotopes. In nature, heavy rare isotopes are produced during the catastrophic death of massive stars called supernovae, or during the merger of two neutron stars.
To the naked eye, no two isotopes of any element look and behave the same way – all isotopes of mercury will look like the liquid metal used in old thermometers. However, because isotopes of the same element have different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei, they differ in how long they live, the type of radioactivity they emit, and in many other ways.
For example, some isotopes are stable and do not decay or emit radiation, so they are common in the universe. Other isotopes of the same element may be radioactive, so they inevitably decay as they turn into other elements. Because radioactive isotopes tend to disappear over time, they are relatively rare.
However, not all decay occurs at the same rate. Some radioactive elements – such as potassium-40 – emit particles through decay at such a low rate that a small amount of the isotope can last for billions of years. (opens in new tab), Other, more highly radioactive isotopes such as magnesium-38 exist for only a fraction of a second before decaying into other elements. Short-lived isotopes, by definition, are not long-lived and are rare in the universe. So if you want to study them, you have to make them yourself.
making isotopes in a lab
While only about 250 isotopes are found naturally on the earth. (opens in new tab)Theoretical models predict that about 7,000 isotopes should exist in nature. (opens in new tab), Scientists have used particle accelerators to produce about 3,000 of these rare isotopes (opens in new tab),
The FRIB accelerator is 1,600 feet long and is made up of three sections folded roughly into the shape of a paperclip. Within these volumes are multiple, extremely cold vacuum chambers that alternately pull and push ions together using powerful electromagnetic pulses. FRIBs can accelerate any naturally occurring isotope – whether it’s as light as oxygen or as heavy as uranium – to almost half the speed of light (opens in new tab),
To create a radioactive isotope, all you need to do is smash this beam of ions into a solid target like a piece of beryllium metal or a rotating disc of carbon.
The impact of an ion beam on a fission target separates the nuclei of stable isotopes. (opens in new tab) and produces hundreds of rare isotopes at once. To separate interesting or new isotopes from the rest, a separator sits between the target and the sensor. Particles with the right momentum and electric charge will be passed through the separator while the rest will be absorbed. Only a subset of desired isotopes will reach multiple devices (opens in new tab) Designed to observe the nature of particles.
The probability of creating a specific isotope during a single collision can be very small. The probability of making some of the rare exotic isotopes may be on the order of 1 in a quadrillion. (opens in new tab) – roughly the same as winning back-to-back Mega Millions jackpots. But the powerful beams of ions used by FRIB contain so many ions and create so many collisions in a single experiment that the team can reasonably expect to find most rare isotopes. (opens in new tab), According to calculations, FRIB’s accelerator should be able to produce about 80% of all the theoretical isotopes. (opens in new tab),
First two FRIB scientific experiments
A multi-institution team led by researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), Mississippi State University and Florida State University, along with researchers from MSU, launched the first experiment. in FRIB on May 9, 2022. The group directed a beam of calcium-48 – a calcium nucleus containing 28 neutrons instead of the usual 20 – at a beryllium target at 1 kW of power. Even at a quarter of a percent of the facility’s 400-kW maximum power, about 40 different isotopes went through the separator into the instruments. (opens in new tab),
The FDSi device recorded the arrival time of each ion, what isotope it was, and when it decayed. Using this information, the collaboration deduced the half-lives of the isotopes; The team has already reported on five unknown half-lives. (opens in new tab),
The second FRIB experiment begins on June 15, 2022, with a collaboration of researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, ORNL, UTK and MSU. The facility accelerated a beam of selenium-82 and used it to produce rare isotopes of the elements scandium, calcium and potassium. These isotopes are commonly found in neutron stars, and the goal of the experiment was to better understand what type of radioactivity these isotopes emit when they decay. Understanding this process could shed light on how neutron stars lose energy (opens in new tab),
The first two FRIB experiments were just the tip of the iceberg of this new facility’s capabilities. In the coming years, FRIB is set to explore four big questions in nuclear physics: First, what are the properties of atomic nuclei with large differences between the numbers of protons and neutrons? Second, how are the elements in the universe created? Third, do physicists understand the fundamental symmetry of the universe, such as why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe? Finally, how can information from rare isotopes be applied in medicine, industry, and national security?
This story was updated to correctly reflect the number of neutrons in calcium-48’s nucleus.
This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) Under Creative Commons Licence. read original article (opens in new tab),
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