Lab bids for $550-million DOE facility

By Alison Sider

Argonne National Laboratory is one of the country’s leading contenders for a rare isotope beam research facility (FRIB), which will be indispensable to nuclear research, according to members of the scientific community.

The Department of Energy (DOE) announced earlier this month that it is currently accepting applications from research institutions interested in hosting the new facility, a welcome announcement amidst growing concerns about funding for national science research programs. The DOE has allocated up to $550 million for the facility.

Argonne’s competitors for the funding include Michigan State University (MSU).

Before the official site is announced in September, Argonne must submit a “convincing and compelling” proposal to the DOE, outlining facility costs and construction schedules. Argonne will be evaluated, along with other contenders, on the basis of its proposal and its ability to run a world-class research program. Once the facility is chosen, the DOE will begin funding the project in the 2009 fiscal year, and construction on the facility is slated to begin in 2011.

The FRIB—a modified version of the Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA)—will be the world’s most powerful research facility dedicated to the production and exploration of isotopes rarely found on earth due to their fast decay rate. The vast majority of these isotopes are so unstable that they last only a fraction of a second, making them difficult targets for research.

Walter Henning, an Argonne distinguished fellow and the scientist heading Argonne’s bid, estimates that there are 6,000 to 7,000 possible isotopes of the 117 known elements, many of which have never been studied.

Henning said he hopes that by creating and studying these isotopes, scientists will acquire a deeper understanding of some of the smallest and largest phenomena in the universe—from the structure of an atomic nucleus to cosmic events such as the explosion of stars.

He added that although many of these isotopes cannot be found on earth or produced in laboratories, they do exist and play an important role in the evolution of elements and explosive events in the cosmos. While advances in astronomy have left scientists with excellent observational data, he said that without the ability to study rare isotopes, physicists do not have the tools to fully understand the nature of stellar explosions and other cosmic events.

Henning said that on a much smaller scale, “in unstable nuclei, relationships and reactions are probably different, which gives us more information about the strong force . This will allow us scientifically to look at nucleic structures, behaviors, and properties, so they live long enough to give us answers.”

He added that further research into these elements could also yield more practical knowledge that could be applied to nuclear medicine, a several-billion-dollar global industry. FRIB could allow scientists to produce rare isotopes in quantities that would open the door for new approaches in radiation medicine.

“These are very interesting ideas, but of course it has to be researched, studied. Over years, hopefully it will come to medical use,” he said.

Although both Argonne and MSU currently operate rare isotope labs, Henning believes that the research and development already done at Argonne could give the lab an edge over the competition.

Important technological and scientific steps toward FRIB’s creation were taken first at Argonne, allowing rare isotopes to be created and collected more effectively, maximizing their use in research.

In a recent press release, Argonne announced a new component design that could reduce the costs of certain kinds of accelerators by 20 to 30 percent.

Representative Judy Biggert (R–IL), the congresswoman representing Argonne’s district and a member of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy, has been a leading voice in Congress advocating funding for rare isotope study.

“The University of Chicago and Argonne National Lab have a proven track record of success when it comes to building and operating major scientific facilities. I fully support their bid to become the hosts of the FRIB, and I am confident that the DOE selection process will be fair and science-driven,” she said.