Stimulus funding a shot in the dark

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 16, 2009 - 11:11 PM

Part of the state's federal stimulus money is being used to build a big lab to catch tiny nuclear particles underground.

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University of Minnesota students Joshua Sleper, left, and Matt Norton, right, work on neutrino-sensing panels that will be filled with oil and fiber-optic cables to detect neutrinos. The panels will be buried at a site in Ash River, Minnesota and detect neutrinos fired from the Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, near Chicago.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Insulation, turkey breasts, wind turbines, buses, crime labs, unemployment checks. ... In the mountain of goods and services being funded by the $4.7 billion-plus American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars flowing into Minnesota, one project stands out: $40 million to build a laboratory near the Canadian border to catch ghostly neutrinos fired at Minnesota from Illinois.

The little-known physics lab -- think three-quarters of a football field underground -- is one of the most exotic basic research projects being financed by the $787 billion act. With $40 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, crews are in the process of blasting the lab out of granite in the woods near remote Ash River.

The lab ultimately carries a $270 million price tag and offers a window on $21.5 billion that the recovery package is pouring into scientific research and development in the name of fostering long-term jobs with impact. Critics have argued that such public projects aren't the best way to juice an ailing economy.

Jobs? Sure. Dozens while it's being constructed, and 10 permanent lab jobs when it's finished. But don't expect the Nova Far Detector Laboratory to spawn Google-like innovations anytime soon. This is basic science. Neutrinos are elusive, relatively massless subatomic particles that come from the sun and from radioactive decay and whiz through matter every day. Scientists study them to glean insights into the origin of the universe. It could take a lifetime for information from the new laboratory to generate any practical uses, said physicist Marvin Marshak, the University of Minnesota professor heading the project.

"We're trying to understand the matter/antimatter asymmetry in the universe," said Marshak, 63, of St. Louis Park. "What history tells us is that sometimes the questions you ask to try to understand the universe ..., the knowledge you gain later on has practical applications. When you do it, you don't know the applications."

The U of M is building the lab as part of a consortium with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago and a variety of universities around the world. It will be a sister to the existing neutrino lab housed about a half-mile underground in the Soudan mine on the Iron Range. They're the only labs in the United States doing neutrino experiments, Marshak said.

Science fair project?

Not everyone is sold on the lab. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano and a gubernatorial contender, scoffed when informed of the neutrino project.

"Minnesotans want jobs, not science fair projects," Emmer said. "Bringing long-term private employment is the real solution for Minnesota."

Adolfson & Peterson Construction, the St. Louis Park contractor building the lab, sees it differently. The Nova lab has been a needed shot in the arm during a year of painful layoffs.

"It's a really important project for jobs, at least near-term," said Doug Jaeger, Adolfson & Peterson CEO. "You and I might not see the results for many years, but this is the type of research that needs to be done to keep the U.S. economy innovative."

Adolfson has 29 subcontractors and suppliers working the job, about half from northern Minnesota. At the peak last summer, up to 55 people toiled at the site, he said. Crews will continue blasting rock at the site through the winter and building a road to it. Construction of the structure should be done by the end of the year, but the lab won't be finished until 2013.

The work is a welcome injection of cash for the Ash River area. An unincorporated cluster of resorts about 30 miles southeast of International Falls, Ash River is best known as a jumping-off point for Voyageurs National Park. Dale Long, mayor of nearby Orr, the last town before Ash River, called the lab "absolutely a good thing."

Orr, pop. 269, relies mostly on resorts and logging. Long said he welcomes ways to diversify.

"It brings people to our small community 12 months out of the year ... our gas stations, our grocery stores, our restaurants," Long said.

Steve Wieber, who owns the Ash Trail Lodge, said workers have been staying at his resort and eating meals, filling in the gaps between fishing season, deer hunting and snowmobiling.

"It's helped to pay some bills," Wieber said. "It's created work for our cleaning crew, which has extra hours they wouldn't normally get. Normally, the "closed" sign would be up."

Long said he anticipates more visitors when the lab opens its doors. People have floated some ideas to promote it: "Gateway to the Northern Science Lab, or whatever you'd want to call it," Long said.

Planned for five years

Marshak said the Ash River lab has been planned for five years but was on hold because the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which had it on its list of approved projects, lacked the cash until now.

Construction bids came in lower than expected, so Marshak's group is returning $9.5 million of the $40 million it actually received.

Interestingly, the stimulus money went directly to the U of M from the DOE. It isn't part of the $4.7 billion in state-administered stimulus funds. Counting direct grants such as the Nova funding, Minnesota's take of recovery money goes significantly beyond $4.7 billion.

The new lab will have a permanent staff of about 10 capturing neutrinos fired underground from Fermilab in Batavia, Ill. Staffers will measure the energy of the neutrino and its type, trying to see how the three types of neutrinos are related.

Fermilab already shoots a half-mile-wide beam of neutrinos in bursts every 2.2 seconds under Wisconsin toward the underground physics lab in the old Soudan Mine on Minnesota's Iron Range. The Soudan facility studies muon-type neutrinos; the new sister lab at Ash River plans to study electron-type neutrinos from the same beam.

But first the phantom particles must be detected. Undergraduates at the U of M are building a prototype of a neutrino detector for the lab. A sort of high-tech catcher's mitt, the detector will measure about 52 feet high, 52 feet wide and 400 feet long, Marshak said. The active ingredient is a type of mineral oil mixed with chemicals so it gives off light when charged particles pass through it, Marshak said. The final detector will be hauled in pieces up to Ash River.

Marshak said he picked the spot, in part, because it was on a hill, in the path of the existing neutrino beam from Fermilab and was the least disruptive site for the environment.

For the curious, check out the site on the Webcam: www.ibeamsystems.com/private/nova.

"We are literally on the last road in the United States," said Marshak.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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