MICHIGAN STATE (US)—Capturing fleeting bits of matter to reveal the nature of the universe is a little like trying to trap incredibly tiny, impossibly speedy mice.
Researchers are developing a better mousetrap in the form of an electromagnetic snare designed to snag and quickly extract rare isotope ricochets from high-speed particle collisions they create.
“The products we make live for much less than one second before they decay into something else, so speed is very important,” says David Morrissey, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Michigan State University.
Rare isotopes are the unstable versions of the chemical elements found here on earth, but have too much or too little mass. Such atoms must be produced in nuclear reactions and are ionized, or electrically charged, losing some electrons that orbit the nucleus.
Stable atoms are flung together at about one-third of the speed of light by huge electromagnetic accelerators at MSU, creating rare isotopes that otherwise are only produced in stars. Based on a prototype and detailed calculations from Morrissey and his collaborators, a helium soup within a new cyclotron “decelerator” should be able to slow down and trap the speeding bits like marbles circling a bowl, slowing and separating them from the hot, gaseous whirlpool.
“We’re going to provide these small ions that have never been studied before to experimenters,” he says, laying the groundwork for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, planned for construction at MSU in the next several years.
Much of the MSU program focuses on mimicking the violent stellar conditions following the Big Bang, which is thought to have kick-started the universe 14 billion years ago. The engine of our own solar system, the Sun, merely fuses hydrogen atoms together to produce helium and energy. So, scientists wonder, where did the rest of the stuff here come from?
“There are chemical elements on earth that couldn’t have been made in the Sun, so they had to be made somewhere else and yet end up here,” Morrissey says.
The best guess, he adds, is that they were formed from different kinds of stars. But because many such elemental precursors lived for only an instant, scientists must muster huge physical forces to deconstruct today’s elements to figure out how they were made.
The work is being funded by the National Science Foundation, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
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