12 December 2008

BREAKING NEWS: MSU awarded $550M research facility

EAST LANSING -- Michigan State University has beaten out Argonne National Laboratory for a $550 million nuclear physics research project, a project that many say could transform mid-Michigan’s economy over the next decade.

Estimates say the project will bring $1 billion in new economic activity and $187 million in tax revenue over 20 years; 300 jobs for scientists and facility staff; 5,800 one-year construction jobs; 220 spinoff jobs.

The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams will be a next-generation facility, housing a superconducting linear accelerator 1,000 times stronger than the machines currently running at MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. In some cases, 100,000 times stronger.

It will allow MSU to stay at the cutting edge of rare isotope research for decades to come. If the project had not gone to MSU, the cyclotron laboratory likely would have been closed within the next decade.

And when the news arrived that MSU had won the day, a shout of joy rang out down the halls of the lab.

“I feel like I have to go into an emotional downstate just to survive the day,” said cyclotron lab Director C. Konrad Gelbke, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C. “It really is an important development that there is a path forward for something we’ve worked on for a decade.”

MSU scientists had been active in advocating for the necessity of a project like FRIB for years and had hoped to win an earlier version of the project called the Rare Isotope Accelerator, which was shelved by the Department of Energy in 2006.

“The exciting thing, of course, is we’re going to build it and we’re going to become a science center and a world leading facility for 20 years or more,” Gelbke said. “There is a long-term trajectory that is absolutely exciting.”

MSU had put forth a massive effort to win the project, gathering an advisory committee that included dozens of political, business, labor and educational leaders from around the state and even rallying students who didn’t necessarily understand the fine points of nuclear physics, but understood the potential and prestige of a facility such as FRIB.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon described that effort as “a classic MSU approach.”

Rather than designing an entirely new facility, MSU officials created a proposal that built on the existing lab and its equipment, only “augmented with the new $550 million from the Department of Energy to turn them into a 21st century world-class facility,” she said.

The cyclotron lab is already the country's leading research facility for rare isotopes - atoms that exist at the far edges of the nuclear landscape, so unstable that they often exist only for fractions of a second.

Its primary focus is on fundamental questions: the structure of matter, the origin of the elements in the cosmos, the nuclear processes that take place inside stars.

But the work there has applications in nuclear medicine, airport security, even in dating ancient works of art.

And it was such applications, the potential for spinoff companies, the pull that massive federal investment can have on private dollars, that were on Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero’s mind this morning.

“You talk about a rare isotope accelerator, this is going to be a business accelerator,” he said. “It is going to be an economic development accelerator. If properly marketed, and it will be, this is great, great news in terms of that high tech sector that we have been working on.”

And the project could mean great things for one company that’s already in Lansing: Niowave, which manufactures parts for superconducting particle accelerators like the one that will be at the heart of FRIB.

“It’s going to open up a lot of work for local industry,” said Terry Grimm, the company’s founder and chief executive officer. “The equipment you use in high-tech manufacturing in the auto industry is much the same as what you use to build these superconducting particle accelerators.”

Grimm’s company now employs 33 people. To do the work for FRIB, he said, “We would team with local industry, and there would probably be 150 to 200 employees,” a split between engineers and skilled machinists.

Plans for the new facility, which are still subject to DOE approval, call for it to be built largely underground, extending from the current cyclotron lab on the south side of Shaw Lane eastward past the northern face of the Wharton Center.

Gelbke said building onto the existing lab will allow scientists to begin using some of the new equipment from FRIB before the facility as a whole comes online around 2017.

Construction of the new facility likely wouldn’t begin until 2013, but, after negotiating a cooperative agreement with the DOE, MSU will have access to some money for design and other costs, probably soon after the first of the year.

A statement released this morning by MSU’s competitor, Argonne National Lab outside of Chicago, said, in part, “We are disappointed in the decision not to site the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne has been a pioneer in accelerator physics for decades and much of the science for FRIB was developed here at the laboratory.”

But a statement released by the DOE said MSU’s application “was judged to be superior based on the merit review criteria” and on such factors as “provision of a proposed budget that is reasonable and realistic, giving substantial confidence that MSU can establish the FRIB within the cost limitations of the FOA.”

MSU’s victory, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, “could not come at a more critical time for us.”

“When you look at the fact that the politics are such that the new president comes from the state where their competitor was, the fact of the matter is this was not about politics, it was about merit,” she said. “My understanding is that their budget was stronger, that the site visit was fantastic, that, in every aspect of their proposal, they were superior.”

No comments: