Mine to House Groundbreaking Research

Photo: The 8,000-foot deep Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota is the site where scientists, including UC Berkeley researchers, plan to construct the world's deepest research center.
Ron Wheeler/Courtesy
The 8,000-foot deep Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota is the site where scientists, including UC Berkeley researchers, plan to construct the world's deepest research center.

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Returning to the same gold mine shaft that he worked at over a 30-year career, William Jack Stratton, project administrator for the Sanford Underground Laboratory, now works for a scientific team that, along with UC Berkeley researchers, aims to construct the world's deepest research center ever.

As the underground operations foreman, Stratton descends into the musty depths of the 8,000-foot deep Homestake Gold Mine near Lead, S.D. with only a headlamp to light the way as he inspects the more than 300 miles of "drifts"-or tunnels-of the mine.

"There really isn't a lot of difference between what I did before and what I do now," Stratton said. "This is like coming home."

Upon completion, the laboratory will utilize the depth of the mine in order to avoid cosmic radiation that could interfere with physics research.

The lab will also lay the groundwork for a UC Berkeley-helmed project which will create an even deeper laboratory intended for ground-breaking, multi-disciplinary research in geology, microbiology and physics, said Ron Wheeler, Sanford Underground Laboratory executive director.

"We are a very, very small state, so we have no illusions that we could support a laboratory," he said.

The planned lab, called the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory-or DUSEL-is being funded through grants from the National Science Foundation.

Last month, the foundation awarded a $29 million grant for preliminary designs to the DUSEL team, which also includes members from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and other universities.

According to Kem Robinson, the project's director for design and construction and Engineering Division director at Berkeley Lab, the team also received more than $18 million in foundation grants in 2007. Final plans requiring between $50 million and $80 million to fund the project will not be completed until 2011, he said.

If the National Science Board approves the plan, construction could start as early as fall 2012, costing upwards of $500 million.

One portion of the lab will house physics experiments that search for dark matter and the study of neutrinos, uncharged particles that rarely interact with other matter.

The potential depth of the lab is ideal for keeping cosmic radiation from interfering with the experiments, said Kevin Lesko, a UC Berkeley research physicist and the principal investigator for the project.

"We have a great opportunity to advance our understanding in the physics world," he said.

Microbiologists, on the other hand, may drill 16,000 feet deep in search for new forms of subterranean life.

This new focus on science is not the first time the mine has been used for physics experiments; in 1965, Raymond Davis Jr. put a neutrino detector in the mine to research the properties of subatomic particles. Data from the mine eventually led to his 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Robinson said local enthusiasm for the project was also encouraging.

"It's not often when you go to a town that has a billboard that says 'welcome scientists'," Robinson said.

Among the largest economic engines in the region, the mine impacted the livelihoods of many in Lead until its 2002 closure. Stratton said many workers like himself are "excited" to get back to work underground.

"(The mine) was really important to our lives," he said. "We raised our families on this mine."


Contact Michael Garcia at [email protected]

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