Friday marks opening of U’s one-of-a-kind neutrino lab

The neutrino detector won’t be fully installed in the building for about another two years.

by Rebecca Harrington



The University of Minnesota’s state-of-the-art neutrino lab will officially open Friday in northern Minnesota.

The NOvA far detector building in Orr, Minn., will use a 15,000-ton particle detector to measure the interactions of neutrinos beamed all the way from a lab  outside of Chicago.

Neutrinos are one of the most abundant particles in the universe and have masses about 100,000 times smaller than electrons, according to NOvA lab supervisor Bill Miller. Researchers hope that measuring their interactions may help explain the origins of the universe.

Workers from Adolfson & Peterson Construction started building the lab in May 2009.

The project was actually completed last spring, NOvA lab director Marvin Marshak said, but the official ribbon-cutting ceremony was postponed until this spring to accommodate the change in University presidents.

“It’s good to reach this milestone, but when one gets to the top, what one sees usually is the next hill,” he said.

The next hill will be installing the actual detector, which Miller estimates will be completed in about two years.

The lab is one of two neutrino detectors that the University operates in northern Minnesota. The other is the Soudan Underground Laboratory near Tower, Minn.

Since the new lab will have a much heavier detector than the Soudan lab, it will be more active because it will be able to detect more neutrinos.

They decided to build the new lab near the old one so it could be in the existing Fermilab neutrino beam, he said.

Fermilab, outside of Chicago, currently has the world’s most powerful neutrino beam, said Fermilab NOvA project manager John Cooper, and they will begin upgrading it this May to make it twice as powerful.

Neutrinos can travel underground hundreds of miles at the speed of light because they interact with things so rarely, Miller said.

Researchers at the NOvA lab will be studying what happens when the neutrinos do interact, he said. They are not yet sure what this research will mean, though.

“It could be a really important bit of information that we need now, or maybe it’s not even until 10 years from now before this is really useful,” Miller said.

There are only two other detectors like the NOvA far detector in the world, but they are not as advanced, Marshak said.

Once installed, the NOvA far detector will be both large and fine-grained, which will ensure that it measures the neutrino interactions with utmost quantity and quality, he said.

Composed of modules made at the University Module Factory in Southeast Como, the detector will be the largest structure made of PVC in the world, Cooper said.

The Module Factory employs students to build and test the modules before they are assembled at the NOvA lab.

“We’re in the middle of acquiring all of the commodity pieces and building the modules that are going to go in the building,” he said. “The building’s kind of a big empty shell at this point.”

The building itself was an engineering feat, Miller said. The detector hall is 280 feet long, 67 feet wide and 70 feet high.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science gave $40.1 million to fund the project.

The University only had to pay to purchase the land for the lab, Marshak, so the University will own and operate it.

Many researchers believe that neutrinos may account for the “missing mass” in the universe, Miller said.

“Everybody talks about the dark matter and dark energy, and neutrinos play a small part in that missing part of understanding of what we can visually see in the universe and what we know is back out there,” he said.

The researchers said they are excited to try to answer these lingering questions they have about the universe, but aren’t sure what the answers might be.

“The great thing about research is you never know exactly what’s going to happen,” Marshak said. “So, that’s what I’m looking forward to — finding out what’s going to happen.”