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National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory

Research Focus & Anticipated Benefits

The National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is the leading rare isotope research facility in the United States. Located on the campus of Michigan State University, the facility operates two superconducting cyclotrons–K500 was the world’s first cyclotron to use superconducting magnets and K1200 is the highest-energy continuous beam accelerator in the nation. Through the Coupled Cyclotron Facility (CCF), the two cyclotrons make even rarer isotopes. Heavy ions are accelerated by the K500 and then injected into the K1200, enabling the production of rare unstable isotopes at much higher intensities.

The primary scientific endeavor at NSCL is to unravel the mysteries that reside at the center of atoms, in atomic nuclei. Atomic nuclei are ten thousand times smaller than the atom they reside in, but they contain nearly all the atom's mass (more than 99.9 percent). Many unstable atomic nuclei exist in the universe, sometimes only for a fleeting moment inside the cosmic cauldrons in which elements are made.

Scientists at NSCL make and study atomic nuclei that could not otherwise be found on Earth. Many basic questions cannot be answered or predicted for rare isotopes. Which isotopes can exist and for how long? How much do they weigh? What are their shapes? The pursuit of these answers, interesting in their own right, helps researchers probe even deeper mysteries. What is the origin of the elements in the universe and on Earth? How do stars shine and evolve? How do they die?

Not only does research at NSCL enhance our understanding of nature, its results could also lay the foundation for new medical treatments, new methods to research materials, and new methods to study chemical reactions.

Education & Outreach

The attraction to nuclear physics begins for many young people with curiosity about our solar system and stars. Then they learn of the drama of the heavens, the continual churn of activity taking place in the vastness of the universe that produces quarks, black holes, and supernovae. These are mysteries of great fascination. Therefore, NSCL sees its involvement with teachers and young students as a golden opportunity to spread science understanding and to recruit future science leaders.

NSCL’s many outreach efforts include the Math, Science, and Technology Program (MST), a two-week residential summer program for academically talented students currently in the seventh and eighth grades. Participants have the chance to dig into exciting science classes in a college environment. The Physics of Atomic Nuclei (PAN) outreach program is a free week-long summer camp available to science teachers and high school students that features an introduction to the research at NSCL and the fascinating fields of astrophysics, cosmology, and nuclear science. Participants even have the opportunity to perform their own nuclear physics experiments.

Undergraduates can spend the summer at Michigan State and gain research experience under the direct supervision of a faculty member by participating in NSCL’s NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Projects include theoretical or experimental work in accelerator physics, astrophysics, or nuclear science. The program also features weekly seminars by researchers in a variety of advanced fields, trips to other laboratories, and social events with other students and faculty.

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  • Image from an NSF-funded High Energy Physics facility.
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