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Nature’s Ultra-Rare Isotopes Can’t Hide from this New Particle Accelerator

The date of: 2022-11-29
viewed: 1


A new particle accelerator at Michigan State University is producing long-awaited results. It’s called the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and it was completed in January 2022. Researchers have published the first results from the linear accelerator in the journal Physics Review Letters.

Physicists sometimes describe isotopes as different flavours of the same element. An atom of any element always has the same number of protons in its nucleus, but the number of neutrons can vary. Atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes. Carbon, for example, always has 6 protons, and its atomic number is 6. But there are different isotopes of carbon, each with a different number of neutrons, varying from 2 to 16.

There are only two long-lived and stable isotopes of carbon: carbon-12 (12C) and carbon-13 (13C). Neither one decays, while all other carbon isotopes do. Some carbon isotopes last only a few thousand years; others exist for only the briefest moments. It’s the same with isotopes of other elements. And whether an isotope lasts for trillions of years or a trillionth of a second, its existence plays a role in nature.

Isotopes are essential in understanding many things in nature, including astrophysical objects like neutron stars and the nature and history of our Solar System. Scientists compare isotope ratios in different objects to see how they might be related. Scientists sometimes call the different ratios “fingerprints” because they fulfill a similar evidentiary role. For example, scientists measured the isotope fingerprints of Earth and compared them to Apollo lunar samples to understand how the Moon formed.

Physicists have been studying and identifying isotopes for over a century. With the advent of more powerful particle accelerators, researchers have identified isotopes that exist only for nanoseconds. It takes extremely high energy levels to produce these elusive atoms and sophisticated detectors to measure them. This is where the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) comes into play.

The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams is a linear accelerator shaped like a paper clip. The powerful accelerator propels atoms to speeds greater than 50% of the speed of light. Image Credit: FRIB/MSU.

Only about 250 isotopes of all types of atoms exist naturally on Earth. But theory predicts the existence of 7,000 of them, and researchers have already found about 3,000. FRIB is designed to close the gap between those numbers. Calculations predict that the accelerator will find 80% of all theorized isotopes. When its work is completed, the Chart of the Nuclides will list about 6,000 isotopes.

FRIB is made of three segments totalling 488 meters (1600 feet long), folded into a paper-clip shape. In the first stage, stable atoms of selected elements pass through a gas of electrons. The gas strips electrons from the atoms, leaving positively charged ions.

Then FRIB accelerates the positive ions to about half of the speed of light before directing them into their target. As the stream of ions strikes the target, the collision makes the ions lose or gain protons and neutrons. That makes them unstable, producing thousands of rare isotopes, some of which last for only brief moments.

Before they can decay, the isotopes pass through a series of magnets acting as separators. They filter out isotopes by momentum and electrical charge. What remains are the isotopes desired for a particular experiment, which reach FRIB’s suite of instruments that measure the nature of the particles.

After colliding with the target, the rare and unstable isotopes pass through a series of magnets that filter out unwanted isotopes. Image Credit: FRIB/MSU.

Researchers can’t direct FRIB to produce specific isotopes. It’s all based on probabilities. Scientists say that creating the rarest of isotopes in FRIB faces long odds: 1 in 1 quadrillion. But FRIB produces so many collisions and isotopes in a single run that 1 in 1 quadrillion isn’t insurmountable. The mass production of collisions and isotopes led to the prediction that the accelerator could produce 80% of all theorized isotopes.

FRIB has already run two experiments. The first was run at only 25% of the accelerator’s full power. It created a beam of Calcium-48 and directed it into a beryllium target. This resulted in about 40 different isotopes reaching the detectors. By measuring the time of arrival, what isotope it was, and how long it took to decay, the experiment detected five new half-lives for exotic isotopes of phosphorus, silicon, aluminum, and magnesium. Measuring these half-lives provides insights into different models of the atomic realm.

Researchers from multiple institutions took part in the first experiment. The lead spokesperson for the first experiment is Heather Crawford, a physicist at Berkeley Lab. A new paper in the Physical Review Letters presented the results.

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