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By Randy Dykhuis

In the heart of the Michigan State University (MSU) campus in Lansing, MI, stands a nondescript academic looking building that you might drive past without a second look, if it weren’t for all the construction equipment standing around. Inside you might be surprised to find one of the top three nuclear labs in the world (one of the other two is in Germany and the other is in Japan). Science conducted at the facility has had a direct impact on our lives, leading to the development of components that make up cell phones and medical equipment.

On October 23, the Michigan Chapter of the Special Libraries Association (MI-SLA) got a tour of this building - The National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory - which houses the cyclotron.

[Photo: The first stop on the tour is the control room, where the beams of isotopes are monitored to make sure their positions are accurate. Courtesy of http://knowledgenetwork.alumni.msu.edu/msu-cyclotron/nsclonlinetour/huntingthemassofaneutrino.html]

Actually, as Zach Constan, Outreach Coordinator, explained, there are two cyclotrons in the building. The superconducting cyclotrons accelerate nuclei up to one-half the speed of light by sending them around a circular path, then crashing them into each other. For fractions of a second, the collisions produce rare radioactive isotopes that exist nowhere else on earth. Scientists come from around the world to run their experiments here. Their goal is to study the cores of atoms, including the neutrons and protons that make up the nucleus.

By working together, the two machines increase the velocity of nuclei to near-light speed before smashing them together. Constan demonstrated this idea with a homemade device that dropped a ball down a PVC pipe, which sent it speeding into another ball that was suspended from a string.

Other fun facts:  The lab has more than 500 employees, is the number-one nuclear science program in graduate education in the U.S., and requires millions of dollars to run the cyclotron every year.

But why all the construction equipment? In 2008, MSU was awarded a contract to build a linear accelerator, which will eventually replace the two cyclotrons. What will become the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) is currently under construction. According to Constan, the FRIB will be completed by 2022, possibly sooner. When it is operational, the cyclotrons will be dismantled.

The cyclotron tour lasts about ninety minutes and is a fascinating look behind the scenes at the big science that is trying to unravel the secrets of the atom.

Randy Dykhuis, MSLS, is the Executive Director of the Midwest Collaborative for Library Services (MCLS) and President-Elect of the Michigan Chapter of the Special Libraries Association.

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30 Oct 2014

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