Underground lab for IT physics research in works

The multimillion-dollar lab will be built near Orr, Minn., to facilitate the study of the neutrino particle.

by Ahnalese Rushmann

A plan for a multimillion-dollar international physics laboratory in northern Minnesota will aim to assist University scientists in exposing secrets about the universe’s formation.

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science awarded more than $45 million toward the construction of the NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance Detector Facility, the University announced last week.

The NOvA lab will be built near the city of Orr, about a mile south of Voyageurs National Park.

The facility is the start of a quarter-billion-dollar project to study neutrinos, fundamental building blocks of matter, according to a news release.

The project is set to be finished in 2013.

University scientists and approximately 200 international collaborators will use research findings to understand more about the formation and future development of the universe.

Physics professor Marvin Marshak, principal investigator of the project, is one of several University professors working on it.

The lab will house a 15,000-ton, student-built neutrino detector, he said. The device will cost about $150 million and will be longer than a football field.

Marshak said the experiment will use an existing neutrino beam that runs from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago to the University’s Soudan Underground Science Laboratory near Ely.

“There’s only three such neutrino beams in the world,” Marshak said, referring to labs in Japan and Europe.

Collaborators from Brazil, England, France, Greece and Russia will also take part in the project, he said.

Marshak said the lab will provide research opportunities for University students.

New clues about the evolution of the universe could lead to new scenarios regarding its origins, said P.K. Williams, senior program officer for physics research at the Office of High Energy Physics at the Office of Science.

“That’s why everybody salivates about these experiments,” he said.

Bill Miller, manager of the Soudan lab, said the two labs are separate projects that use the same beam.

He said Soudan’s main lab projects will end around 2010.

“Unfortunately, it’s not 100 percent clear what (the new lab) means for the Soudan lab in the long run,” he said.

University representatives have conducted public meetings to inform local residents of plans, said Tammy Nandrasy, vice president of the Orr Convention and Visitors Bureau and president of the Orr Tourist Information Center Board.

“If anybody’s not informed about it, that’s their own fault,” she said, adding that there have been articles about the project in local newspapers.

Nandrasy, an eight-year Orr resident, said it’s an honor for the city to be associated with the project.

Some residents have expressed concern about local environmental risks the lab might pose, she said.

“There’s some concern about all of the oil that’s going to be shipped up here to fill the tubes in the detectors and what would happen if there was a spill,” Nandrasy said.

Marshak said oil for the detector will be set in an underground rock “bathtub” that provides two levels of containment, in the rare case of a spill.

“The volume of the bathtub is sufficient to contain all the oil plus all the water that’s in the fire extinguishing system,” he said. “It would just sit there until you came and basically pumped it out.”

Marshak said the University is going through a voluntary environmental review process, something that will be discussed at this week’s Board of Regents Facilities Committee meeting.

Planners tried to pick a site that was removed from waterways and relatively invisible, he added.

Nandrasy said she thinks the lab will be unobtrusive and is excited by the possibility of the scientists’ findings.

“It’s not anything that’s going to harm anybody,” Nandrasy said. “It could unlock great mysteries and to me, that’s just exciting.”

Louise Redmond, Orr’s city clerk, said the possibility of more job opportunities is another way the area will benefit from the facility.

About 25 full-time lab positions will be filled locally, she said.

Marshak said the area’s electrical power grid will be upgraded for the project.

Existing roads and power lines will be modified instead of creating new ones, he said.

Marshak, who is 61, said the NOvA lab will be special because it’ll be one of the last big projects that he’ll work on, start to finish.

He said once the scientists answer their questions, there will still be plenty of work for future University scientists.

“You go look for another question to answer,” Marshak said. “I wouldn’t want to answer all of the questions and not leave any for anybody else.”