With the turning of a shovelful of earth a mile underground in South Dakota, a new era in international particle physics research officially began July 21.
In a unique groundbreaking ceremony at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, a group of dignitaries, scientists and engineers from around the world, including those from the University of Chicago and its affiliated Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, marked the start of construction of a massive international experiment that could change our understanding of the universe. The Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility will house the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), which will be built over the next 10 years and operated by a group of roughly 1,000 scientists and engineers from 30 countries.
As part of the collaboration, Fermilab will generate a beam of neutrinos and send them 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) through the earth to Sanford Lab, where a four-story-high, 70,000-ton detector will be built beneath the surface to catch those neutrinos.
“Fermilab is proud to host the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which bring together scientists from 30 countries in a quest to understand the neutrino,” said Nigel Lockyer, director of Fermilab. “This is a true landmark day and the start of a new era in global neutrino physics.”
When complete, the experiment will be the largest built in the United States to study the properties of mysterious particles called neutrinos. Unlocking the mysteries of these particles could help explain more about how the universe works, and why matter exists.
“Today is extremely exciting for all of us in the DUNE collaboration,” said Ed Blucher, professor of physics at the University of Chicago and the Enrico Fermi Institute and co-spokesperson for the DUNE collaboration. “It marks the start of an incredibly challenging and ambitious experiment, which could have a profound impact on our understanding of the universe.”
Scientists will study the interactions of neutrinos in the detector, looking to better understand the changes these particles undergo as they travel across the country in less than the blink of an eye. Since they were discovered 61 years ago, neutrinos have proven to be the most surprising subatomic particle, and the fact that they oscillate between three different states is one of their biggest surprises. That discovery began with a solar neutrino experiment led by physicist Ray Davis in the 1960s, performed in the same underground mine that now will house LBNF/DUNE. (Davis shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2002 for that experiment.)
DUNE scientists also will look for the differences in behavior between neutrinos and their antimatter counterparts, antineutrinos, which could give us clues as to why we live in a matter-dominated universe—in other words, why we are all here, instead of having been annihilated just after the Big Bang. DUNE also will watch for neutrinos produced when a star explodes, which could reveal the formation of neutron stars and black holes, and will investigate whether protons live forever or eventually decay, bringing us closer to fulfilling Einstein’s dream of a grand unified theory.
Moving 870,000 tons of rock
Now that the first shovel of earth has been moved, crews will begin the construction to excavate more than 870,000 tons of rock to create the huge underground caverns for the DUNE detector. Large DUNE prototype detectors are under construction at European research center CERN, a major partner in the project, and the technology refined for those smaller versions will be tested and scaled up when the massive DUNE detectors are built.
At its peak, construction of the facility is expected to create almost 2,000 jobs throughout South Dakota, and a similar number of jobs in Illinois. Institutions in dozens of countries will contribute to the construction of the DUNE components. The DUNE experiment will attract students and young scientists from around the world, helping to foster the next generation of leaders in the field and to maintain the highly skilled scientific workforce in the United States and worldwide.
This research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, in conjunction with CERN and international partners from 30 countries. DUNE collaborators come from institutions in Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States.