December 12, 2008 at 1:37 pm

MSU awarded $550M isotope lab

Landing isotope facility will bring prestige, jobs to state

At the heart of the isotope facility will be a high-intensity linear accelerator, more powerful than other accelerators in the U.S. (Kurt Stepnitz)

By most accounts, Michigan State University wasn't supposed to win a cutting-edge federally funded research facility.

Its biggest competition for the $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) was a prestigious national laboratory that had nine times more employees than MSU's lab and a half-billion dollars more in annual federal funding.

But on Thursday, when the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it wants to build the state-of-the-art facility on Spartan soil rather than its own Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, MSU proved that underdogs can win, leaders said.

"If we have the right assets and attitude and align them together with the can-do spirit, you can really do extraordinary things, even though other people thought you couldn't," said an elated MSU President Lou Anna Simon. "That's a message for all of us. If this is possible, just think what else is possible."

On the heels of gloomy economic news, recessionary woes and exhausting debate in Washington over the auto loan rescue package, the announcement Thursday gave the university and the state something to cheer about. Not only will the planned facility advance the study of rare nuclear isotopes and secure MSU's spot as a world leader in the field, but it's expected to generate $1 billion in economic activity for the state of Michigan and 400 new permanent jobs, according to one economic study.

"This is a huge deal for Michigan in terms of jobs but also in terms of image," Gov. Jennifer Granholm said. "This makes us competitive with any other state in the country."

Final design for the new facility will begin immediately, with construction beginning in 2013 and fully operating within a decade, according to MSU. The heart of the facility will be a high-intensity linear accelerator that is 1,000 times more powerful than existing accelerators at nuclear science facilities in the nation, including the cyclotrons currently used at MSU's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. The accelerator will be built underground next to the existing lab.

Generating economic activity

Beyond the science that the facility is poised to produce, leaders Thursday focused on the much-needed economic activity the project brings to the state.

Between 2009 to 2016, nearly 800 construction jobs and 5,000 indirect jobs among companies producing materials and designs for the project will be created. Once the facility is fully operational in 2017, 400 new permanent jobs will be created -- 180 among scientists, researchers and staff on site and 220 throughout mid-Michigan in the food, entertainment and other services industries, according to the Anderson Economic Group, which conducted an economic impact study on the project.

"This is great news for the future of the Michigan economy and it really gives us a running start on transitioning the economy to (one) that's centered on advanced science, research and development," said Scott Watkins, senior consultant at the Anderson Economic Group. "It makes Michigan State and the state of Michigan an integral part of the international science community."

While the science conducted at MSU will be basic science -- the type of discoveries published in scholarly journals that don't necessarily breed immediate commercial spin-off companies -- the research will likely generate economic activity in attracting scientists and researchers from around the world to MSU's campus, Watkins said. Those scientists spend money and have an opportunity to see what other assets Michigan has to offer.

'A fabulous achievement'

MSU, buoyed by the help of its congressional delegation and its spirited students, had been lobbying hard for the facility. MSU is a leader in rare isotope research, but its technology was becoming outdated. Without the FRIB project, the biggest boon ever to MSU's nuclear physics program, MSU would "drift into oblivion," said Konrad Gelbke, director of MSU's lab.

Congressional leaders, too, feared MSU would be outmatched by Argonne for the project. Michigan lawmakers were concerned that MSU faced an uphill battle against a Department of Energy lab, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit.

"This was a daunting challenge," he said in Washington, D.C. "It's a fabulous achievement for Michigan State and for (the state of) Michigan."

Both MSU and Argonne presented detailed plans to the U.S. Department of Energy selection committee and hosted site visits. Ultimately, MSU's proposal was judged to be superior based on the merit review criteria and its confidence in building the project within the cost limitations, according to the Department of Energy.

"The Department of Energy's new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University promises to vastly expand our understanding of nuclear astrophysics and nuclear structure," said Eugene Henry, acting associate director of the Office of Science for Nuclear Physics.

"This capability will allow physicists to study the nuclear reactions that power stars and stellar explosions, explore the structure of the nuclei of atoms and the forces that bind them together, test current theories about the fundamental nature of matter, and play a role in developing new nuclear medicines and techniques."

While thrilled with winning the project, Simon cautioned work remains. Congress needs to approve funds annually for the project, MSU and the Department of Energy must reach an agreement and an environmental review of the site is needed.

"Winning the competition ... was just the first step in what will be a decade-long journey to make this project a reality," Simon said. "Michigan's congressional delegation will play a key role in supporting MSU and DOE in securing appropriations necessary to build the facility and ensure that America continues to be the leader in rare isotope research."

Congressional leaders expressed their ongoing support.

"In Michigan we know that this will create good paying jobs for Michigan, provide outstanding educational opportunities for our next generation of scientists and open the door for scientific breakthroughs," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton.

Staff writers Gordon Trowbridge and Catherine Jun contributed to this report. You can reach Marisa Schultz at (313) 222-2310 or mschultz@detnews.com">mschultz@detnews.com.

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"This is a huge deal for Michigan in terms of jobs but also in terms ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)