News

    Scientists Look Deep Underground for High-Tech Lab

    To understand the world above the ground, sometimes it helps to go deep under ground, where scientists can shield experiments from light, cosmic rays and other interference. That's why U.S. researchers are proposing an entire mountain in Colorado for what could become the world's largest deep underground laboratory. It may open new frontiers in every-thing from biology to astrophysics.

    Granite mountain holds potential

    One hour west of Denver, holiday travelers and truckers hauling freight speed through the Colorado Rockies, intent on skiing down the mountains or getting over them. But inside one mountain is a hive of activity. Miners drive bulldozers and trucks, removing a steady stream of molybdenum, which is used to strengthen steel.

    This is Henderson Mine's Red Mountain, named for its reddish color, a common shade for ore rock. The miners blast out the molybdenum then dump it on a crusher that smashes 80 tons in a single gulp. Henderson's owners see profit in the power of modern mining equipment. Scientists see a research opportunity, as they think about what that machinery could do in the gray mountain Henderson Mine owns next to Red Mountain.

    It's called Harrison Mountain. Bob Wilson, a particle physicist at nearby Colorado State University, describes it as "dull granite. Doesn't have the tinge, doesn't have mineral ore. Nothing commercially interesting there." But scientifically, there's plenty about this bit of earth to attract attention.

    Wilson, who knows the importance of doing research in a quiet, shielded environment, believes that Harrison Mountain could be the perfect location for a lab, with the help of Henderson Mine's equipment. "We want a place where we can dig big cavities that aren't going to fall down on us," he explains. "We want big, dull boring granite. And we can do it because all of their infrastructure for excavating, doing the mining, is right there."

    Lab would serve scientists in many fields

    If approved, Harrison Mountain would become America's first official Deep Underground Scientific and Engineering Laboratory. The lab would help geologists study how dull, boring granite changes into valuable ore rock. And other scientific fields would also benefit.

    University of Colorado biologist Jeff Mitton says that being deep underground will reveal hidden realms of life. He displays a core sample from Harrison Mountain, noting that his team found living organisms in it. "So there are microbes living [1830 meters] below the surface in what you or I would identify as dry solid rock. It may be that that's a natural museum for some of the very earliest forms of life. It's a possibility, and it's tantalizing," he concludes.

    Just as tantalizing is the opportunity for physicists to study whether protons decay and what neutrinos are all about. But it's hard to catch these subatomic particles in action, especially since they can pass straight through the earth without colliding with anything. A neutrino is so hard to figure out, its nickname is 'the ghost particle.'

    Huge underground caverns needed to study sub-atomic particles

    University of Colorado physicist Eric Zimmerman says a tiny neutrino can be both matter and antimatter, simultaneously, adding "It is possible that the neutrino is actually its own anti-particle." When matter collides with its antimatter counterpart, they erase each other. But among neutrinos, there might be a little more matter than antimatter. Zimmerman says this makes these particles one of the hottest topics in physics. "We want to understand how the universe works and why the world is made of matter."

    Nobel Prizes have been awarded for neutrino research, with more likely to follow. But as for practical applications, those are still in the distant future. Bob Wilson counsels patience. He points out that when the electron was discovered a century ago, scientists had no idea what they could do with it. Now, he notes, "The electron is the basis of all technology. The electrical current is just electrons moving around. Semiconductors are essentially manipulating the electron and understanding atomic properties." He says that understanding neutrinos may give us a better understanding of fundamental forces that govern nuclear power operations and cause the sun to burn and stars to explode.

    Being deep underground makes neutrino research easier, because all those meters of granite screen out cosmic rays. It's also easier to spot neutrino interactions when zillions of particles can be monitored at once. Eric Zimmerman says one of the best ways to watch them is in a sort of water bucket; a very large bucket, like an underground cavern filled with water. "It's one of the ironies in science," he says with a shrug. "The smaller the object you want to look at, the bigger the equipment you need to look at it. So we're talking about a cavity that's over a mile under the surface of a mountain that's the size of a modern basketball arena."

    And then, Bob Wilson says, the ghostly particles may leave a trace. "Most of them will stream right through the mountain," he acknowledges, "will pass right through the detector, and not even wave as they go by. But that one in a billion, that interacts in the detector, we see it, and we'll say, 'aha!'"

    Thanks to sturdy granite and high-tech digging equipment, the Henderson Mine is a finalist for the first U.S. Deep Underground Laboratory. The National Science Foundation will make a decision this spring, then earmark $300 million to create a world-class space for studying rocks, life and neutrinos.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahdai
    X
    Lisa Schlein
    May 31, 2016 1:56 PM
    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahda

    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Mobile App Allows Dutch Muslims to Rate their Imams

    If a young Dutch-Moroccan app developer has his way, Muslims in the Netherlands will soon be able to rate their imams online. Mohamed Mouman says imams rarely get feedback from their followers. He believes his app can give prayer leaders a better picture of what's happening in their communities — and can also keep young people from being radicalized. Serginho Roosblad reports from Amsterdam.
    Video

    Video Moscow Condemns NATO Plans to Beef Up Defense in Eastern Europe, Baltics

    NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday an upcoming "landmark summit" will enhance the alliance's defensive and deterrent presence in eastern Europe and the Baltics. He is visiting Poland ahead of the NATO Summit in Warsaw. Zlatica Hoke reports
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video F-35 Fighter Jet Draws Criticisms as Costs Mount

    America’s latest fighter plane, the F-35, has been mired in controversy. Critics cite cost, faulty design, and the attempt to use it to fill multiple roles. Even the pilot’s helmet is controversial. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Concerns Over Civilian Suffering as Iraqi Forces Surround Fallujah

    Thousands of residents are trapped inside the IS-held city ahead of a full scale Iraqi offensive aimed at retaking it.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora