News Release 08-078 - Video
The Importance of Isotopes
This material is available primarily for archival
purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may
be out of date; please see current contact information at media
Brad Sherrill, a professor at Michigan State University, discusses the importance of producing new isotopes for research and for commercial applications such as medicine and advanced materials.
Credit: Michigan State University
Back to article
"My name is Brad Sherrill. I'm a professor at Michigan State University and my expertise is in producing new isotopes for research."
"An isotope is just a name for a different version of a nucleus. In nature, nuclei of atoms have in them neutrons and protons; the number of protons determines what element it is. For example, calcium is calcium because there are 20 protons in the nucleus. The number of neutrons determines what the isotope is."
"Isotopes are important for two reasons. One is really just basic science, and trying to understand about the atomic nucleus. A lot of physics goes along the line of 'if you want to understand something you have to understand the pieces that make it up, and you have to understand how those pieces interact with each other.' In the nucleus the two main components are neutrons and protons, and we would like to understand in the nucleus how these pieces, the neutrons and protons, interact with each other. A really good way to do that is if you can change the number of neutrons and protons in some way and study what difference that makes."
"The capabilities we've developed over the past 10 years or so are based on particle accelerators, or atom smashers. In our case with the MSU cyclotron, that's actually a very good example, we actually smash nuclei to produce the new nuclei that we're interested in. Our current cyclotron has limited capability, and although right at the moment the MSU cyclotron, funded by the National Science Foundation, is actually the most powerful atom smasher in the world. It's the most powerful device for producing these new isotopes. Around the world other countries are investing in new facilities in this area, and we're going to also have to make an investment if we're going to make an advance into the future. We have ideas for what that next advance should be, and it's quite exciting because if we use new linear accelerator technology we can actually make something that's up to a million times more powerful than what we have now. So a lot of the research that is just barely possible with our current facilities now becomes almost easy with the new facility, and then likewise the new things that we have to discover, and access to the new isotopes, becomes that much greater when we're getting this huge increase in capability."
"The other way that isotopes are important is in technology and applications to society. Fairly often particular isotopes have a particular characteristic that's useful for research. A very standard example is in medicine where you have certain isotopes that emit an anti electron called a positron, and where the decay that takes place can be localized by something called positron emission tomography, or PET. So if you have an isotope in the body which is emitting positrons and you can localize it, you can use that as a way to do, for example, a search where there's a lot of current active growth which might indicate the presence of a tumor."
"One of the good things about doing this kind of research at a university campus is that students at all stages can be involved in it, and we have a lot of undergraduate students who are involved in building things, helping analyze data, and getting experience working in a national research laboratory."
"The reason I wrote this Perspective piece for Science was that I felt that it wasn't appreciated in the broader scientific community of this what I think is a really amazing capability that has been developed. We often talk about nanotechnology and building things on the atomic scale. But we're really now also in the realm of building things on the nuclear scale. We've gotten to the point where people can begin to specify the number of neutrons and protons that they would like to have in a nucleus, for whatever reason that they want that for. And we have developed now the ability to deliver on that, and it's really a technology with capabilities on a nuclear scale, which is one hundred thousand times smaller than the atomic scale, and I think it's really exciting. But it's also exciting because we're just at the beginning of this, and as we move into the next generation of facilities that are even more powerful in producing new isotopes we'll see another dramatic expansion in our understanding of a variety of things. That range from understanding how stars create the elements in the universe, to providing new isotopes with new characteristics, such as decay characteristics and new half lives, for applications to other things, to being able to answer very fundamental questions about the nature and physics of the atomic nucleus."
NSCL is a world-leading laboratory for rare isotope research and nuclear science education. Operation of NSCL as a national user facility is supported by the experimental nuclear physics program of the National Science Foundation.