NSF Awards FSU physics department $5 million for nuclear research

Samuel L. Tabor

For more than five decades, Florida State University has been home to one of the nation’s most respected programs in experimental nuclear physics. Now, that program has received a major vote of confidence from the National Science Foundation in the form of a $5 million grant to fund ongoing research into some of the fundamental properties of matter.

The three-year grant will support a continuing research project titled “Studies of Nuclear Reactions and Structure” that was previously awarded $4.4 million by the NSF in 2008. Using FSU’s John D. Fox Superconducting Accelerator Laboratory, members of the physics faculty use the NSF funding to conduct cutting-edge research in experimental nuclear physics while also preparing graduate students for high-level careers in such fields as defense, homeland security, nuclear medicine, industry, academia and basic research.

“This award not only maintains the continuous federal funding for this world-renowned experimental nuclear physics group but actually includes an 11 percent increase over the previous NSF grant,” said Samuel L. Tabor, the Norman P. Heydenburg Professor of Physics at FSU and director of the accelerator laboratory. “Such an increase is obviously unusual given the present funding climate in Washington and represents strong affirmation of the outstanding quality of research being carried out here.”

The NSF grant will enable purchases of expensive research equipment and provide support for a number of graduate students and some of the lab’s staff. Such funding will “allow us to remain on the world frontier of nuclear physics research,” Tabor said.

A key element of the accelerator laboratory is the RESOLUT rare ion facility, a particle collider that has been used to conduct nuclear experiments since 2007. With RESOLUT, researchers are able to fire a beam of atomic particles through a steel tube at speeds approaching 60 million miles per hour — roughly one-tenth the speed of light — and then to observe the nuclear reactions that occur. Knowledge of such reactions is critical to the field of astrophysics and the interpretation of observations made by astronomical observatories around the world. (Read more about the knowledge that researchers are seeking to acquire via RESOLUT at www.fsu.edu/news/2007/08/14/star.light.)

“Within this laboratory, most of our research is basic, fundamental research in nuclear physics, nuclear structure and nuclear reactions,” Tabor said. “We’re trying to learn the fundamental nature of matter — how the nucleus is built, what holds it together, how it behaves. We’re also studying how nuclei behave in reactions deep inside of stars to better understand our universe.”

While such basic research may not yield results that are immediately apparent, it does lay the foundation for the applied research that often follows. It can take decades before basic research leads to medical or technological breakthroughs; for example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which have revolutionized modern medicine, have their origins in basic scientific research that started way back in the 1930s.

More immediately, the John D. Fox Superconducting Accelerator Laboratory’s most tangible benefit is the students whose newly acquired knowledge enables them to make an immediate and positive impact on society.

“Right now, we have around a dozen doctoral students conducting their dissertation research in this laboratory,” Tabor said, as well as a large number of undergraduates who also use the facility.

“Our students have great career possibilities because of all the high-tech skills they’ve learned,” he said. “Some of them remain in fundamental nuclear physics research while others go out and work in areas related to national defense, homeland security, medical physics and a variety of other applications, all of which are of great benefit to the nation.”

Tabor also pointed out the lab’s positive economic impact.

“This laboratory brings significant money into the local economy,” he said. “It provides some of the highest-tech jobs in Tallahassee. We hire highly skilled staff members, we hire a number of graduate students, and we provide valuable revenue to the Tallahassee area and to Florida.”

While Tabor is the lead researcher on the NSF-funded project, several other members of the Department of Physics will also play a very active role. They are Paul Cottle, the Steve Edwards Professor of Physics; Mark Riley, the Raymond K. Sheline Professor of Physics and chair of the department; Associate Professor Ingo Wiedenhöver; Associate Professor Grigory Rogachev; and research physicist Anthony Frawley.

“This grant tells us that we are very highly respected in the United States and throughout the world,” Riley said. “Getting an increase in funding speaks volumes about the quality of our work as perceived by our colleagues. And believe me, not many other labs are getting increases right now.”

For more information about FSU’s John D. Fox Superconducting Accelerator Laboratory, contact Tabor (850) 644-5528 or stabor@fsu.edu.