In a rare showing of contentious debate among the University’s highest governing body, the Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously gave the go-ahead to expand an underground physics laboratory in northern Minnesota.
The additional construction to the Soudan Underground Laboratory will shoot theoretical subatomic particles called neutrinos to another site in Illinois to determine whether they have mass. The laboratory is located in the Tower-Soudan State Park near Lake Vermillion, Minn.
The University will cover $3 million of the total $11 million price tag for the project. Within 10 years, the laboratory’s research is expected to bring in about $20 million.
While physicists say the ground-breaking research is important, some regents questioned why theoretical research with little foreseeable application should be funded by the University.
“We still have to ask the tough questions of, is this a wise expenditure?” Regent David Metzen said.
The research will observe the energies of different types of neutrinos — uncharged particles created by cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere — in an attempt to prove that these small particles do actually have mass. For years it was thought neutrinos did not have mass.
The existing lab is half a mile underground. During the four-year construction time, the granite caverns will be expanded to accommodate 540 new neutrinos sensors, which will be brought into the mine and assembled before installation. The assembly of the sensors will take two years.
Researchers hope to add to the body of knowledge about basic elements and the composition of neutrinos. But some regents wonder if the University should be spending money on programs such as this.
With $3 million of University funds going toward the building project, some questions arose about the project’s endurance and the University’s investment. Regent Maureen Reed asked if the site should be adaptable for other research if things don’t turn out as planned.
But University physics professor and neutrinos researcher Earl Peterson said there is extra space planned for the cavern for other experiments not to be conducted quite yet.
Reed also questioned the program’s longevity. Peterson said the project’s partner, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, is committed to the project until 2008.
The research will be conducted in conjunction with Fermi labs — which will also fund part of the Soudan lab. Neutrinos produced at the Fermi labs will be sent 730 kilometers through the ground, reaching under Wisconsin and Lake Superior. This will be the first time anyone has done an experiment where the production of particles and their detection was two states away, Peterson said.
Metzen asked whether the project is worth taxpayers’ money or if it is an example of a “pork barrel investment” in a time of excess funds at the University.
“It’s always problematic whether basic research is worth doing or not,” Peterson replied.
Ultimately, officials at the University who are unsure of what the research entails can look to the performance of the other five research labs throughout the country conducting similar research, said Eric Kruse, interim vice president for University Services.
“If history’s a guide, we’re in good shape,” Peterson said.