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Michigan State Picked for Half-Billion-Dollar Accelerator

Like David felling Goliath, a relatively small university lab has beat out a much larger national lab in the competition to host a $550 million accelerator facility for nuclear physics. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today that it would build the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing instead of at its own Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Many had expected Argonne's superior infrastructure and $530 million budget to give it a decisive edge.

"A lot of people thought it was more than a long shot, but I always felt very optimistic that if you presented the case in a very open and honest way, it would all level out in the end," says C. Konrad Gelbke, director of NSCL, whose $20-million-a-year budget is paid for by the U.S. National Science Foundation. One factor in DOE's decision was a significant contribution from MSU in helping to pay for the machine, says Eugene Henry, DOE's acting associate director for nuclear physics.

Argonne officials said in a prepared statement that they were "disappointed" in DOE's decision and noted that "much of the science for FRIB was developed here at the laboratory." Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL), whose district includes Argonne, said in a statement that if Argonne researchers decide to appeal the decision, "they will continue to have my full support in Washington." Henry declined to describe the technical differences between the two bids but said "this wasn't the easiest of decisions."

FRIB will serve as a source of exotic and fleeting radioactive nuclei. The heart of the machine will consist of a high-intensity linear accelerator that can accelerate any stable nucleus from hydrogen to lead. Those beams will then be smashed into and through targets to make exotic isotopes, which then will be used to refine existing theories of nuclear structure, probe fundamental symmetries of nature, and help unravel the processes in stellar explosion that presumably produce half the elements heavier than iron. FRIB's beams would be of much greater intensity than those that can now be produced at NSCL.

Some observers have misgivings about the decision. "I think that it would have fit Argonne's mission and that the scale of the project was more appropriate for one of the existing DOE laboratories," says Burton Richter, a particle physicist and former director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. "What DOE is doing is starting another national lab." (Officially, FRIB will be a "national user facility.")

Other scientists are just glad that the project, originally proposed in the late 1990s, is making progress. "We are happy that the decision has been made and that the excellent team at Michigan State has been chosen," says Witold Nazarewicz, a nuclear theorist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Researchers hope to start detailed design work next year. Design and construction are expected to take about a decade.