reWorking Michigan: F-RIB planning continues despite budget concerns

East Lansing, MI – ReWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lakes State explore new ways to make a living and build a future. Today, our reWorking Michigan Monday report looks at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or "F-RIB" on the Michigan State University campus.

Last week, officials got a scare when U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu expressed some doubt over whether the federal government would continue funding the $615 million facility. Michigan's congressional delegation is vowing to fight to preserve those dollars. In the meantime, scientists and contractors are pressing forward with the project they say will be an economic game changer for Michigan.

When Steven Chu met with the Detroit Economic Club last Wednesday, the U.S. energy secretary didn't in so many words proclaim that the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams was suddenly off the table. But his remarks about taking care not to start more projects than the fed can afford seared like a laser into the psyche of F-RIB's stakeholder community.

"Chu is not one who drops comments casually, and that's what makes it so worrisome," says Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI).

Levin is one of several members of the state congressional delegation who's rushing to F-RIB's defense. He says he'll keep the pressure on the Obama Administration to keep the funding intact. Levin says Congress will know whether the White House values the project in a couple of weeks, if it appears on the president's proposed 2013 budget.

"If it doesn't, then the battle will go to Congress to have the funds appropriated anyway," Levin says. "We don't rubber stamp any administration's budget request; we always make changes in it. And if they leave out this facility, then we will fight to restore it."

Back in East Lansing, those working on the project remain undaunted. In fact, they're elated at the scope of the work that lies ahead. The nuclear accelerator to be built at MSU promises to find more isotopes - elements whose atomic nucleus contains a unique neutron signature - than scientists yet know about. It's a little like the Hubbell space telescope, which has found planets outside our own solar system because its lens is positioned in deep space.

"We're coming to the bounds of what kind of science we can do," says Jill Berryman, a beam physicist at MSU's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. ""But what F-RIB will provide is a further reach. We can access new isotopes that we've never studied before, and we can just do a lot more science."

But that's later. Right now, the backhoes are making the breakthroughs -- right through a lot of dirt.

LAVERY (outside): "Just outside is this large tract of land that borders Wilson and Bogue streets on the MSU campus. Crews have dug a tunnel about 15 feet deep. They're pouring a concrete foundation here so they can re-route the steam pipes."

The civil construction will span the next two years. The technical equipment will be installed in 2013 or 2014. Project manager Thomas Glasmacher says that will require a lot of manufacturing savvy.

"And luckily, we're in Michigan, a state that has had extensive manufacturing capability," says Glasmacher. "So, all together we have hired about 100 people in addition to the 400 that we already had, and eventually we will need to hire another 200 people. And so those folks will design, build and operate F-RIB."

Glasmacher has searched around the world to attract the right talent. At the same time, he says, F-RIB is helping to plug the brain drain that's plagued Michigan for decades. Case in point: Jill Berryman. She grew up in Michigan and attended Hope College in Holland. She graduated with her doctorate from MSU. But California's siren call lured her away for her post-doc. Then along came F-RIB.

"We were very happy in Berkeley, and they offered us permanent jobs which was very tempting, but we came back to Michigan for F-RIB," Berryman explains. "So, we really love Michigan and we really want to see F-RIB built here."

Certainly, everyone involved with the project wants to see the dollars come into and the discoveries come out of Michigan. The federal budget process unfolds this spring. For now, contractors in Michigan will keep fitting the pipes as our congressmen in Washington fight for the pipeline.