Officials to break ground on physics lab

The new lab will break ground Friday in northern Minnesota.

University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Energy and Fermilab researchers and officials, along with congressmen from Minnesota and Illinois, will travel Friday to a remote site about 240 miles north of Minneapolis to break ground on a new physics research facility that will eventually house a 15,000-ton neutrino detector . The DOE has allocated about $45 million to the University to excavate the site, improve a road leading to it and construct the building for the detector. Contractors will employ 60 to 75 locals during the site development, which University physics professor and project principal investigator Marvin Marshak expects will finish by fall 2010. Marshak expects additional funding to build and install the detector and improve FermilabâÄôs neutrino beam. Neutrinos are common, fundamental particles that fly around near the speed of light and can pass through matter. The particles, which have mass, come in three different types and can morph between them as they travel. Researchers have already detected two of these transitions, and the proposed experiment, named NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance Experiment (NOvA) , aims to measure the third. Neutrinos are probably the most common particle in the universe that has mass, University of Minnesota-Duluth physics professor Alec Habig said, but âÄúwe only have a foggy idea of how they behave.âÄù Better understanding of neutrinos doesnâÄôt have immediate practical applications but is instead about âÄúfinding the shapes of the pieces of the puzzleâÄù for scientists down the road. The experiment will rely on a neutrino beam produced at Fermilab, a high-energy physics lab in Batavia, Ill. , just west of Chicago. The University already detects neutrinos from the Fermilab beam in its Northern Minnesota Soudan Underground Laboratory, which helped show neutrinos have mass. But the existing detector isnâÄôt suitable for studying the lower- energy neutrino type the NOvA detector is designed to measure. The Soudan lab, which lies right in the middle of the neutrino beamâÄôs path, detects one or two neutrinos per day. The NOvA lab, which will be more sensitive and about eight times larger, will detect roughly 20 neutrinos per year because the site lies on the beamâÄôs periphery to detect neutrinos lower in energy, Soudan lab manager Bill Miller said. Federal funding for the project has been âÄúon-again, off-again,âÄù said Marshak. Save for the approximately $150,000 it cost to survey and purchase the land, no project funding will come from the University. After the DOE initially agreed to provide $45 million for the project in the fall of 2007, funding was cut that winter. But some was reinstated last summer, and FebruaryâÄôs federal stimulus bill resulted in $50 million for the project, with $40 million of it going to the University. Marshak, who founded the lab site while on a wedding anniversary trip with his wife, hasnâÄôt yet received a check from the DOE but hopes to get it Thursday. âÄúIt was kind of weird because the initial funding kind of got cancelled because the economy was bad, and then it came back because the economy was even worse,âÄù UMD professor Habig said. Habig, one of about 150 project collaborators from around the world, is working on NOvA data acquisition software. He is glad to be âÄúfinally working on [the project] again because an awful lot of work has gone into it,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôll be great to finally take all the work weâÄôve done and actually build something and see it all go.âÄù Marshak expects the detector will be up and running around 2012, though he said the timeline is a little hard to predict and will depend on the funding. Once itâÄôs going, he said the experiment will go on for at least 10 years. After FridayâÄôs groundbreaking ceremony, which he expects about 100 people to attend, researchers will hold a public meeting at the American Legion in Orr, Minn ., near the site of the lab. So far, Marshak said, heâÄôs gotten nothing but positive responses from area residents. In addition to employing between 60 and 75 people during the site development phase, the University will hire about 40 during detector assembly. Once itâÄôs up and running, theyâÄôll need between 10 and 12 longer-term staff, he said. The detector will be built mainly in the Twin Cities by University students, then transported north and assembled. Along with developing data acquisition software, Habig and his students will measure stresses and strains on the detector. And the experience theyâÄôll gain, he said, is one of the most important aspects of the project. âÄúIf all weâÄôre doing is fundamental knowledge, that may or may not benefit humanity decades down the road,âÄù he said, âÄúThe one thing that we do do right now is train students âĦ in a whole bunch of good skills like this.âÄù