12.11.2018
Research news

Exploring atomic nuclei and their cosmic origins at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland

The Accelerator Laboratory (JYFL) is the northernmost large-scale facility for accelerator-based nuclear structure studies in the world, located at the Department of Physics, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Research at the laboratory explores the fundamental properties of atomic nuclei. The Accelerator Laboratory also serves as an excellent training site for early career researchers and students who acquire an excellent set of skills useful for a variety of careers through a hands-on approach to studies.

Researchers in the Accelerator Laboratory are studying properties of atomic nuclei including their masses, sizes, shapes, spins, and decay modes. In addition to testing state-of-the-art theoretical nuclear models describing fundamental interactions in nuclei, the research provides essential data for understanding nucleosynthesis in stars as well as for nuclear energy and safety.

Internationally recognised research infrastructure

Several international research projects and exciting experiments in the Accelerator Laboratory are exploring different properties of the atomic nucleus. The laboratory is one of the main European accelerator facilities with over 40 new radioactive isotopes discovered.

- The research is very international with around 300–400 international visitors to the laboratory every year and a local staff of around 80 persons, says professor Paul Greenlees, the head of the Accelerator Laboratory.

Chemical elements are central for the existence of life

Professor Iain Moore from the Department of Physics at the University of Jyväskylä is one of the many researchers working on experiments in the Accelerator Laboratory. Moore emphasizes the complexity of nuclear physics: it is not enough to have one experiment, but the subject has to be examined from different angles to build a complete picture.

- It is very important to be able to understand the impact of nuclear properties for energy generation and safety, and there are many experiments performed in the laboratory with international scientists that provide information for this, Moore emphasizes.

Fundamental research is also being done in the laboratory aiming, in the long run, toward the first nuclear clocks and gamma-ray lasers with many potential applications in future.

- Ultimate science questions are related for example to the origin of the chemical elements; where and how they are created? Why is there more matter than antimatter? What are the limits of nuclear existence? These are important questions to ask, Moore says.

Origin of elements heavier than Iron

Often the research aiming to answer these fundamental questions results in the development of new techniques, ideas and knowhow that are useful for many applications as well. Academy Research Fellow Anu Kankainen is currently leading a European Research Council Consolidator Grant project in the Accelerator Laboratory.

- The project investigates properties of radioactive nuclei in order to better understand how heavier elements, such as gold or uranium, are made in the Cosmos. It is fascinating to study nuclei and realize the profound impact they have on stellar events and abundances of chemical elements in the Universe, Kankainen says.

Student training in these exciting fields

The Accelerator Laboratory in Jyväskylä is unique in many ways. It is the only such large-scale international facility in Finland. It is also one of the few accelerator laboratories on a university campus, located on the ground level of the Department of Physics, making it a great training site for students.

- The facility does not have many permanent technical staff, and therefore the students and young researchers support the development and construction of equipment used for research. The techniques and tools developed here are shared with larger facilities abroad, and students gain concrete skills that they can utilise in their careers, says professor Paul Greenlees.

In addition to the training possibilities in the Accelerator Laboratory, the international Master’s Degree Programme in Nuclear and Particle Physics at the University of Jyväskylä offers a full set of MSc-level physics courses taught in English, covering the inner workings of the universe from the smallest to the largest scale.

- The programme is also unique in Finland and abroad. Students learn nuclear and particle physics and the theoretical and experimental methods that are used by experts. There is a very strong connection to research, with research groups that participate in some of the major physics experiments in the world, says Greenlees.

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