MSU research physicist Scott M. Hitchcock rigs magnets at the university's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory

Some universities pack an overwhelming ton of stuff into a GLITR Tech Tour visit.

On the 2010 Fall Tour’s final stop Friday, let’s just say the folks at Michigan State University, secure in their own status as a world-class research institution, tried a different approach. I went to only three places, but all of them were overwhelmingly cool.

I started out the day at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, where I met with some of the folks from Ingage Networks, who are working with MSU to expand the giant university’s social media efforts under a collaboration announced March 1. The CEO of Naples, Fla.-based Ingage, Kim Patrick Kobza, is a Muskegon native and graduate of Central Michigan University and the Wayne State University law school.

Ian Hewlett, social media project manager in the college’s Social Media Research Lab, said four major projects are under way under the initaitive.

The first is called Advance Michigan, an effort through the MSU Extension Service.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station conduct a statewide needs assessment every five years to ask Michigan residents for input on directing their educational and research resources. This year, that assessment is taking an online format at the Web site advancemichigan.msu.edu.

All Michigan residents are invited to visit the site and post discussion subjects and ideas and vote on items posted by other visitors. Unlike other online assessment tools, the AdvanceMichigan site was developed to encourage visitors to make frequent visits to share input on a variety of topics in multiple ways. They are also encouraged to share links to other sites, news stories, online videos and photos.

The site uses a crowdsourcing format, which means that topics rise in popularity through votes and other visitor contributions.

Next is the Great Place Network, an initiative of the MSU Land Policy Institute and MSU Extension, with funding from the Michgian Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.

The Web site is an effort in “placemaking,” with discussion boards and much more focused on economic development projects. Users can also exchange documents, video, spreadsheets, photos and more within groups.

Check it out at http://www.greatplacenetwork.org/. There’s also a Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Great-Place-Network/145195155498777.

Coming soon is www.micheen.org, a Web forum sponsored by DELEG to give large institutions like hospitals, schools and local governements information and best practices on energy efficience projects.

In the development and early testing stages is Spartan Connect, a Web site intended to be a social networking site backed by MSU’s residential and hospitality services. Right now it’s limited to residents of MSU’s easternmost dormitories, the so-called East Neighborhood.

Nicole Ellison, an associate professor in the CAS and a researcher of social media, said the relationship with InGage gives MSU an opportunity “to play with and explore and observe processes that are happening in the real world, not just in a student population. We have access to server-level data, wso we can tell what people are actually doing with these sites, as opposed to what people say they are doing or think they are doing.”

Ellison, who teaches in the college’s department of telecom, information studies and media, conducts research into relationship formation and development online — the effects of what she called social media’s “larger network of weak ties” as opposed to close friends.

Ellison said several MSU faculty are at work doing research on social media, and that MSU was among the first to study Facebook from an academic perspective.

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From tech-based social science research I did a quick trip across campus to MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, and its even bigger cousin next door to be built from 2012-2020, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

The cyclotron, as the name implies, cycles atoms around in a circle to incredibly high speeds, where they’re smashed into barriers. Scientists look among the tiny wreckage for both clues as to the nature of the early universe, shortly after the Big Bang, and for rare isotopes of common atoms that may have scientific or medical applications. The FRIB will be bigger and more powerful, and a straight-line accelerator rather than a circular one.

The FRIB would produce and explore rare and unstable isotopes so that scientists may better understand cosmic events and nucleic properties that could lead to medical applications and breakthroughs in materials science. The FRIB will be at least 1,000 times more powerful than the 20-year old machines currently in operation at MSU’s NSCL.

Thomas Glasmacher, project director and manager for the FRIB, said the new accelerator will work like the others — “you have an atom from which eletrons were removed, so it’s positively charged, and you put a negative charge in front of it, so it’s attracted to the negative charge, and you put a positive charge behind it, so it’s repelled from the positive charge.”

The accelerator is chilled to just 4 degrees above absolute zero, and built with niobium, which is superconducting at very low temperatures, which allows huge magnetic fields to be created with smaller amounts of power and less heat than would otherwise be possible. Then, the atoms are accelerated — in the FRIB’s case, to 40 percent of the speed of light. That means the atoms smashed will have twice as much mass as atoms at rest, because of relativistic effects. If the FRIB used copper instead of niobium, Glasmacher said, “most of the energy we put in would be converted to heat.”

Construction on the civil engineering part of the FRIB is to begin in 2012, with the technical part of construction starting in 2013. The official completion target is before March 31, 2020, and there’s already a big backlog of requests to use the device from researchers around the world.

The total construction cost is about $600 million, and the actual acceleration tunnel will be about 550 feet by 70 feet, and it will be about 20 feet underground.

Glasmacher said he’s hiring engineers and project controls people for the FRIB, and thanks to the decline in manufacturing in the United States is making them easy to find locally. “While we recruit some nationally, including some U.S. people who wound up oversess, there’s a lot of people we’ve hired around here.” Glasmacher said. “What’s nice about Michgian is that there once was a competent manufacturing industry here, and if it hadn’t we wouldn’t be abe to find the kind of people we have been able to find.”

(Glasmacher was also critical of U.S. trade policy in advanced manufacturing: “The decline of manufacturing is an impediment to being able to build accelerators like this. The idea that you can outsource all your manufacturing overseas and remain a viable industrial country, I don’t see how that works. You’ve got to be able to build stuff. It’s not all software and Facebook and services.”)

Glasmacher graduated with his Ph.D. from Florida State in 1992 and said he had multiple offers around the country, but “MSU looked the most organized and the most advanced. The NSCL was the most advanced place in the country to do heavy ion research.” So Glasmacher did post-doctoral research in gamma ray detection with rare isotopes, then stayed on in the faculty.

“Now I’m just building this thing,” Glasmacher said with a grin about the FRIB. “This is a big opportunity for MSU and a big opportunity for science, and we will deliver.”

Glasmacher said the FRIB will concentrate in four areas of research:

* How the elements are made. We don’t know right now how the heavier elements are made,” Glasmacher said. “They are made in stars, they are being made in stars right now, but we don’t know how it works.” The FRIB will create rare isotopes for study that are  identical to those being created in the center of stars, leading to more understanding of the process.

* Improving science’s understanding of how protons and neutrons are held together in atoms. “Our models of how protons and neutrons are held together, don’t have much predictive power,” Glasmacher said. “We want to create a theory of atomic nuclei and how they are held together that will have predictive power. This tool will let us test some of the hypotheses of nuclei under more extreme conditions.” As an example, Glasmacher charted a function that at the energy levels achievable today looked like a parabola, but at higher levels of energy may turn out to be a different kind of curve.

* Study fundamental symmetries in nature. “There are certain rare isotolpes we can make that can allow us to very sensitively test the standard model of particle physics,” Glasmacher said. “We can make these isotopes in FRIB and test those models.”

* Application of rare isotopes for the benefit of humanity. FRIB can make research quanities of isotopes that medical researchers can then use to develop targeted cancer therapies, or that materials scietists can use in thier studies. “It’s like a prototype thing, you can very quickly make them and if they’re useful, you can find a more efficient way to make them in bulk,” Glasmacher said.

The FRIB project has already created 60 jobs, about half of which are new hires. Glasmacher credited the Lansing Regional Chamber for a great deal of help in the project.

According to the Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group, the FRIB will produce more than $1 billion in economic activity over the initial decade, with 20-year state tax receipts (state income taxes and other) of $187 million. Anderson assumed $200 million of the construction spending went out of state, and 40 percent of the new jobs came from existing cyclotron operations.

I toured the NSCL, by the way. Take the trip if you ever get the chance, completely fascinating.

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My final visit of Friday and of the 2010 Fall Tech Tour was with Joseph H. Hotchkiss, the new director of the MSU School of Packaging and director of the MSU Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability.

“We’re not very well known because people don’t care about the packaging, they think about what’s inside,” Hotchkiss said. “Everybody deals with packaging but nobody thinks about it.”

MSU’s world-leading packaging operations came out of the Department of Forestry, back when almost all shipping packaging was wooden crates.

“Some of the faculty joined the war effort by helping distribute materiel to Europe and the Pacific,” Hotchkiss said. “They came back from that experience with a lot of horror stories about what did not work, things got broken and got lost. They came back and said, “You know, this is an important part of forest products, we should do reasearch and teach on this.”

The School of Packaging was formed in 1952, and has evolved with the times as shipping materials have moved to corrugated board and polymers.

“Packaging is a blend of engineering, mathematics, the sciences, particularly chemistry and biology because you have to think about what’s inside the package, as well as a business aspect, particularly supply chain management and distribution,” Hotchkiss siad. “Then you can also be creative and artistic.”

The future holds more wonders — in stores, video screens that you will show a package to, the technology inside will read the bar code, and show a video of you using the product properly, medication compliance achieved through bar code readers in the medicine packaging that use your cell phone to call your doctor to remind you to take a pill.

Hotchkiss is also predicting cereal boxes with cheap accelerometers built into the box that turn into video game controllers in front of video screens.

“Green is a major thrust,” Hotchkiss added. “It is the future, if for no other reason than this: Monday I’m going to Shanghai, world’s largest city, 50 million people, and they all like to get into their cars and park on highways. And you think about the resource they’re using to do this, and it is a finite resource, You come to the conclusion that packaging will have to move out of petrochemicals into something else, something realted to biology because it has to be renewable.”

Hotchkiss said the MSU packaging school is at the perfect place — a major land grant university.

“Half of all packaging is in food,” he said. “So if you’re really going to do packaging research and education, you should be connected somehow to food science, which is across the street. Materials science and chemical engineering are fundamentals of packaging, and across another street from us is a first rate engineering school with lots of resources. The part of packaging you never see but which is extremely important to the industry and a major cost for them is distribution packaging, how you put cartons together and what you make them out of, and MSU has a premier supply chain management program in the business school. We do a great deal of fresh food and flowre packaging research, and you can’t really do that without a deaprtemnt of horticulture.”

The real key to packaging, Hotchkiss said, is making it just good enough to perform its intended purpose.

“Any fool can build a bridge that won’t collapse,” he said. “The good bridgebuilder will build a bridge that just barely won’t collapse — the most efficient, optimum design. We wind up developoing packaging that will just barely protect the product, because anything over that is a waste of resrouces.”

I also toured the packaging labs, where huge machines test how much shock a package can take (just how long a fall can that sack of flour take without bursting, anyway?). MSU also pioneered these machines, made by Lansmont Corp. of Monterey, Calif. (that’s half Lansing and half Monterey). The school also has a small pilot box making plant and a small pilot plastics molding plant.

(c) 2010, WWJ Newsradio 950. All rights reserved.

Comments
  1. Allison Guimard says:

    INgage Networks is so excited to be working in collaboration with MSU on the social media research lab. Advance Michigan is such an exciting project and the “crowdsourcing format, which means that topics rise in popularity through votes and other visitor contributions” is a social media software we, at INgage Networks, are both proud of and excited about how fast it’s popularity and utilization is growing.

    Ngage Networks has been accommodating various social media trends, including crowdsourcing, social mobile, and community management for 10+ years. Our crowdsourcing software, ELAvate Crowdsourcing, allows organizations to capture the knowledge of crowds and effectively utilize that knowledge to problem-solve and furthermore, to plan for the future. Take a look at our crowdsourcing splash page: http://www.ingagenetworks.com/elavate-crowdsourcing.

    To see our customer success stories using ELAvate Crowdsourcing as well as our other ELAvate Business Services, please visit this page http://www.ingagenetworks.com/customers

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