Final light-rail tests on University labs begin

The tests will show if the University must move more labs to protect research.

Elizabeth Ryan

As construction on the Central Corridor light rail wraps up, University of Minnesota researchers are anxiously waiting to see how the trains will impact their work.

Tests beginning this week will measure how vibrations from the light rail will affect sensitive University research.

For a few hours each night, light-rail trains will run to measure electromagnetic interference and vibration levels. The tests will continue into September.

“These tests are really sensitive,” said Leslie Krueger, University Services chief of staff. “We want to have the quietest environment possible to get the most detailed data.”

The Metropolitan Council will test vibration levels in nine buildings around Washington Avenue Southeast. To measure the electromagnetic levels, staff will limit vehicle and pedestrian traffic, elevators, use of electronics and moving metal objects in the area.

Beginning in 2006, the University began looking at how much the light rail would affect research. The University wanted a “do no harm” outcome, Krueger said. Based on current traffic conditions, she said, the light rail shouldn’t create additional problems for researchers.

Working with the Metropolitan Council, the University imposed restrictions on the trains — like using floating track systems that reduce vibrations — so they wouldn’t disrupt research on campus.

But even with these precautions in place, some labs still had to move.

The Minnesota Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility is one of the labs that moved from Nils Hasselmo Hall, near the light-rail tracks, to the basement of the Mayo Memorial Building. The process took nearly a year and cost $25 million for the move and new lab equipment. Half of the money came from a state bonding bill, and the University paid the rest.

“The most frustrating thing was proving how much damage the light rail might do to our research,” said MNMR director Gianluigi Veglia. “It’s almost been like a forensic investigation.”

Because the lab uses powerful magnets to create microscopic images of proteins, the work is very sensitive to vibrations or magnetic fields from the light rail.

A laser lab also left its location in Kolthoff Hall and moved next door to Smith Hall, costing $860,000. The Metropolitan Council and the University’s College of Science and Engineering split the bill 70-30.

Lab manager Michael Blank said the move was a drawn-out process but was necessary because of the lab’s sensitivity to vibrations.

“It was definitely disruptive,” he said. “Given the circumstances, it was handled well, even though it was a little bit contentious at the time.”

The University will have to pay for any additional lab moves. Another possible solution is slowing down trains as they pass that part of campus where labs are located.

In the new MNMR lab, the refrigerator-sized research magnets float over rubber platforms so the vibrations won’t affect them.

Veglia said he hopes the location will be far enough away from the trains.

“We’re still waiting for the trains to be tested,” he said. “… There’s a level of uncertainty about how many trains, how fast they will go, and those questions were never answered.”

Krueger said previous tests show the labs will be far enough away to prevent interference.

But only running the trains will offer proof.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” she said. “We’re going to see if the trains meet the performance standards.”