The heavy-ion accelerator at FRIB shoots a powerful beam of stable isotopes, usually ionized uranium atoms, at half the speed of light through a 450-meter-long accelerator tunnel before smashing into a graphite wheel, which spins to avoid overheating a particular spot of the target. Most of the nuclei pass through the graphite, but some will collide with the target’s carbon nuclei, causing the uranium nuclei to break up into smaller combinations of protons and neutrons (with the number of protons defining the element but different numbers of neutrons), or rare isotopes, many of them never produced before.
With about 10,000 isotopes found in nature, some exist only inside of exploding stars, or others exist for just fractions of a second. Scientists have only been able to study about 3,000 of them. These rare isotopes have become increasingly important tools for scientific investigations, ranging from the synthesis of heavy "man-made" elements to nuclear physics, biology, and medicine.
“The superconducting linear accelerator at the heart of the FRIB was designed to produce those rare particles in relative abundance – and allow scientists to study close to 1,000 isotopes here on Earth,” says Chris McCarthy, VAT Account Manager at FRIB. “Now, scientists will be able to learn more about how the universe was formed, and also help develop innovations in medicine, nuclear security, environmental science, and more.”
The FRIB accelerator maintains an ultra-high vacuum (UHV) environment to minimize any beam interactions with residual molecules. The main accelerator tunnel and the individual experiment corridors are isolated by vacuum valves from VAT, which are able to operate at the extremely high power levels and high temperatures within the UHV environment of the accelerator.
“Since the beginning of the FRIB project 14 years ago, VAT has worked with the FRIB team to provide critical, fast closing valve solutions for key parts of the accelerator” explains Chris McCarthy.
The type of nuclear science research that FRIB enables has already led to innovative technologies such as MRI and PET scans, smoke alarms and cell phone technology.
“While the FRIB is designed to help scientists answer fundamental questions about the formation of the elements and the structure of matter, one of the most urgent areas of research is in the field of cancer treatments,” adds Chris McCarthy. “Today, doctors use radioisotopes to find malignant cancer cells in PET scans. But rare isotopes, like the ones generated at the FRIB, will have the ability to seek out and attack specific cancers in the body, which can then be tracked down by medical clinicians and chemists and eradicated. This is potentially a huge step forward for medical science.”