January 18, 2005

One billion dollars may go to Argonne National Lab

The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory are on the verge of winning a lucrative government contract to construct and operate a Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA), with a Department of Energy contract worth $1 billion.

The proposed RIA would be the only one of its kind in the world. With it, large amounts of heavy nuclei could be produced that are otherwise available only in minute quantities. These nuclei are normally unstable and rare, found in places such as the cores of stars.

This technology has implications for a wide variety of experiments requiring an abundance of these nuclei. "RIA-based science is extremely broad and diverse, spanning the gamut from nuclear structure to astrophysics, tests of fundamental laws of nature, and a myriad of applications," said Renee Carder, assistant vice president for Strategic Research Initiatives at Argonne.

Donald Geesaman, director of the physics division at Argonne, likens the new technology to sequencing the human genome. "RIA will allow us to use the elemental fingerprints of stars to trace the origin of the elements in cosmic cauldrons," he said, just as genomic sequencing has allowed scientists to peer back in time trying to trace our biological ancestry.

The potential benefits to Illinois in general, and Argonne and the University in particular, are significant. The contract could generate hundreds of jobs both temporary and permanent and pump millions of dollars into the state's economy, according to Robert Rosner, William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the departments of astronomy and astrophysics. He also pointed out that it could foster strong ties with scientific industries like nuclear medicine that would be interested in the new technology.

The gains would not be limited to jobs and money. "Another less tangible benefit to the lab, the University, and to the state is the fact that RIA will be a great international draw for scientists throughout the world," he said.

Carder agreed: "[It] provides an opportunity to attract some of the best nuclear physicists and theorists, thereby expanding upon an already renowned group of astrophysicists and computational scientists."

The RIA would also allow many specific types of research to be done conveniently near campus. According to Rosner, "RIA is the centerpiece of major new initiatives in fundamental nuclear physics, namely to understand the basic physics governing heavy nuclei."

The accelerator could be used to make advances in everything from medicine and environmental protection to homeland security, thereby making Argonne and the University a prime location for many potentially important fields of study.

Argonne is not running unopposed, though. The main competition comes from Michigan State University. "The University is working closely with key Argonne personnel. Together, we plan on submitting the most competitive proposal," Carder said.

While Argonne is taking the contract very seriously, it is confident the benefits of locating the accelerator there will overcome any opposition from MSU. "We have the advantage of having considerable experience managing and operating a national laboratory as well as the ability to leverage the existing infrastructure at Argonne," Carder said. Tying the RIA into the Argonne infrastructure could significantly reduce the cost to the Department of Energy.

The University and Argonne are expecting a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) from the government in early 2005. A draft RFP was issued in October.

Even if it chooses to build the RIA at Argonne, the government will face challenges. According to Carder, the current budget will not allow construction of the RIA to be completed for another 10 years. "How do we get the best and brightest physicists of today and the future generations of tomorrow interested in a field of physics where […] the experiments they are designing today won't be able to be executed for at least a decade?" she wondered.

Despite this obstacle, many Argonne and University scientists are excited at the prospect of the RIA. "[It] will provide an essential link of the science of the very small to the science of the largest scales in the universe," said Geesaman, referring to the potential for studying tiny rare nuclei present in stars across known space. "[RIA] will provide the keys to unlock the mysteries of the structure of nuclei and the origin of the elements that make up our bodies."