Next-Generation Linear Accelerator For Rare Isotope Accelerator Project

As Michigan State University works with the state of Michigan to attract a $1 billion nuclear science research facility to be funded by the Department of Energy, a team of MSU physicists is nearing completion of the design of a vital part of the project.

Terry L. Grimm, a staff physicist at MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), and his colleagues are putting the finishing touches on the next-generation linear accelerator that will be at the heart of the Rare Isotope Accelerator project. Once completed, this piece of equipment will hurl atoms through a half-mile track at nearly three-quarters the speed of light, or approximately 139,000 miles per second.

Grimm’s work on the linear accelerator, or “LINAC,” recently earned him the R.W. Boom Award, an honor given by the Cryogenic Society of America recognizing accomplishments in the field of superconducting research.

“All of us who have been working on this project for the last two years appreciate this award very much. It recognizes that the NSCL has reached the cutting-edge of accelerator technology,” said Grimm, who also is an adjunct professor in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“This LINAC will allow RIA to accelerate isotopes to unprecedented speeds – as well as make these accelerations substantially more cost effective to achieve than current cyclotron technology allows. This technology is vital for RIA, and our achieving it indicates why Michigan State is the appropriate place to house RIA.”

The linear accelerator is a piece of equipment designed to fling atoms through a half-mile track at an ever-increasing speed. Once the atoms reach a high enough speed – in this case, nearly three-quarters the speed of light – they crash into a target and break apart, forming isotopes that cannot be found elsewhere on earth. Scientists then study these isotopes, some of which exist for just fractions of a second, for clues to, among other things, the origin of elements.

What Grimm has been working on is what he calls a set of “hammers,” which is essentially a series of plates made from the element niobium. By alternating positive and negative charges in the plates, the plates are able to increase the velocity of the atoms to rare isotope-producing speeds.

“As powerful as it is, our current coupled cyclotron laboratory at MSU has pretty much reached its technological limit due to thermal heating,” Grimm said. “Rare isotope research is moving beyond the capabilities of the cyclotronto LINACs. This LINAC is the most advanced to date and as part of RIA will advance rare-isotope research even further. RIA will provide more than 100 times more power in obtaining rare isotopes than current NSCL coupled cyclotron technology, which is currently the most advanced in the nation.

“For the LINAC to operate efficiently, we’re basically building a large refrigerator that cools it to nearly 460 degrees below zero Fahrenheit at which point the niobium is superconducting,” Grimm said. “We use the same principle as your refrigerator at home, only instead of using Freon, we use helium.”

Rare-isotope research, which this LINAC and ultimately RIA will continue to advance, offers incredible promise for scientific advancements affecting basic nuclear science, medical diagnosis and treatments, national security and understanding the origin of the universe.

Additionally, the RIA project would bring with it more than 1,600 new jobs, an $80 million federally funded annual budget and a major boost to the Michigan economy – nearly $2 billion over 20 years. The U.S. Department of Energy will decide where RIA will be located.

Grimm will accept the R.W. Boom award at the Applied Superconducting Conference to be held later this year in Florida.

For more information on the RIA project, visit the Web at www.nscl.msu.edu/ria

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