2010 President's Report

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Capturing fleeting bits of matter to reveal the nature of the universe is a bit like trying to trap the fastest and tiniest mice imaginable. But there’s a big distinction between the near impossible and the impossible, especially for scientists at Michigan State University.

That’s why MSU researchers have landed a $3.28 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop what is, in essence, a giant electromagnetic mousetrap that will catch and extract rare isotope ricochets from high-speed particle collisions that replicate cosmic events.

“We know there is a finite number of chemical elements,” says David Morrissey, University Distinguished Professor of chemistry, who is leading the project at MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL). “And we know the chemical elements here on Earth are the same as everywhere in the cosmos. If we answer basic questions here, those answers will be the same anywhere in the universe.”

Rare isotopes are unstable forms of the chemical elements found on Earth—either heavier or lighter—and live for only a fraction of a second. Forcing particles to collide creates a nuclear reaction that can be captured, like a bullet lodged in a wall, so scientists can study them. Morrissey and his team will take a slightly different route, catching their newly created particles in gas and extracting them with an electric charge so they can study them more quickly.

The project will yield never-before-studied ions that will draw top scientists from around the world to the NSCL, which also serves as a training ground for MSU nuclear science students—the next generation of scientists.

“Our product is really the students,” says Morrissey. “They go on to be a resource for the country.”

The project also helps lay the groundwork for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, the $600 million U.S. Department of Energy national user facility being built at MSU to advance understanding of rare nuclear isotopes and the evolution of the cosmos.

Meanwhile, Morrissey and other scientists at the NSCL—a resource for the country for more than two decades—continue to build MSU’s capacity for creating rare isotopes otherwise produced only in stars and analyzing the fast-projectile fragments.

That world-leading research contributes to a broad body of knowledge—the fundamentals of how our planet and universe work—that just may reveal the secrets of the Big Bang. Call it the impossible dream. Or near impossible, if you’re from MSU. There’s a big difference.

For more information:

David Morrissey

National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory

This research is supported by MSU and the National Science Foundation as part of the $15 billion scientific research component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.