SD State research goes underground

Neutrino project to fuel particle physics research

BROOKINGS – South Dakota State University researchers are doing preliminary work on an international physics research project that will push the limits of engineering and could lead to new discoveries in particle physics. 

A groundbreaking ceremony Friday will mark the beginning of construction on the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, known as DUNE, at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead.

The invitation-only ceremony will be held simultaneously at the Sanford Lab at 2:20 p.m. MDT and at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known as Fermilab, in Batavia, Illinois. It will be streamed at .

During the next 10 years, more than 800,000 tons of rock will be excavated from the former Homestake Mine to create three large underground caverns nearly 1 mile below the surface. The space will house a particle detector filled with 70,000 tons of liquid argon cooled to -300 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists study the interaction neutrinos make with argon atoms in the detector.


SDSU work

Associate professors Greg Michna and Stephen Gent in the SDSU mechanical engineering department are performing computational fluid dynamics simulations to help those designing the particle detector for the Sanford Underground Research Facility.

Through a one-year, nearly $50,000 grant from Fermilab, the researchers simulate the fluid flow, heat transfer and impurity distribution of argon in proposed detector designs. One graduate student and one undergraduate are involved in the project.

“When a neutrino hits something, it gives off electrons. The electron lifetime is dependent upon the impurity levels of the argon,” explained Michna, the principal investigator on the project. “There should be few impurities in the liquid argon and the distribution of impurities should be uniform.” The researchers are evaluating different manifold designs and the inlet-outlet plans for the pumps that filter and distribute the argon throughout the detector.

The detector will record particle interactions, capturing images of neutrinos beamed 800 miles through the Earth from Fermilab’s neutrino-producing facility in Illinois. It must be housed deep underground to prevent interference from neutrinos produced naturally by the sun and other stars. Fermilab collaborated with the University of Minnesota on a similar research facility at the Soudan Underground Laboratory, north of Duluth.


Team of 1,000 scientists

Construction of prototype detectors for DUNE has begun at the European research center CERN, one of the project’s major partners. A team of 1,000 scientists and engineers from more than 160 institutions in 30 countries will work on the DUNE project.

Daniel Scholl, vice president for research and economic development at South Dakota State University, said, “This is an opportunity for South Dakota State researchers to be involved in cutting-edge neutrino research collaborating with engineers and scientists from around the world.” 

Associate physics professor Rob McTaggart, SDSU’s representative on the DUNE institutional board, said, “The experiments conducted at DUNE will develop new scientists and engineers with a robust analytical tool kit that can be applied to many other fields. For example, medical imaging today is based upon particle detectors, so new designs benefit from trained particle physicists. That could lead to more accurate detector technology.”

McTaggart is simulating background events for a space-based solar neutrino design at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, this summer. His work will serve as a basis for pursuing funding opportunities through the National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

"Neutrino detection will help us better understand how the sun works, since neutrinos are a by-product of the fusion processes that power the sun," McTaggart noted.  "That would not only benefit commercial fusion, but our understanding of space weather as well."


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