Province chips in for Sudbury’s underground science lab


CBC  News Update July 21 2017

SNOLAB: it’s one of the world’s deepest, underground research centres, located in the heart of a working mine. And a recent $28.8 million boost from the Ontario government means the lab in Sudbury, Ont., can keep the lights on for another five years.

The facility, located two kilometres below the surface, attracts researchers from around the world to study neutrino and dark matter physics.

Reza Moridi, Ontario’s Minister of Research, Innovation and Science, made the announcement in Sudbury Wednesday. The funds will go towards facility maintenance and operations.

The grant comes after the federal government’s own announcement in January of a $28 million boost to SNOLAB.

It’s expensive to fund an underground centre like SNOLAB, says executive director Nigel Smith, and that’s why scientists from around the globe collaborate.

Smith estimates the facility has 500 researchers from 15 countries working on long-term research projects.

“These projects they have to be fully international because they are large scale,” Smith said.

Nigel Smith

SNOLAB director Nigel Smith says he expects experiments to get bigger, but more expensive. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

“The projects we’re now working with are tens of millions of dollars to build. So to get enough money together you need a large collaboration, a global collaboration to pool those funds together to build the experiment and operate it.”

“And then, of course, analyse the data,” Smith said.

So, what brings you to SNOLAB?

Smith said researchers are drawn to SNOLAB because of its setting: the facility is one of the quietest radioactive environments available on the planet.

“The areas of research that we’re engaged in need very quiet radioactive background, so much quieter than you’d have on the surface of the earth,” Smith said.

“Everything around us has small quantities of radioactive material in it. On the surface we’re bombarded by cosmic radiations from outer space. The science threads that we support are looking for quiet interactions in sensitive particle physics-type detectors.”

Smith said if the experiments ran on the surface the science would be “swamped” by background noise and radiations present above ground.

Going forward, Smith said he expects larger-scale experiments and larger international collaborations. And they aren’t going to be cheap. That’s why the government help is such a relief.

“Currently projects are $150 million to $300 million to put together,” he said. “This takes a lot of effort to persuade funding agencies and accrue sufficient money to build these large scale experiments.”

A corporate mainstay in Sudbury, Vale, also contributes to the lab. The mining giant hosts the lab at the 6800 level, a cost which would otherwise have to be carried by the lab.

“We have this tremendous incoming support from Vale as well, which allows us to operate the lab at what is a relatively low cost per year,” Smith said.

“I think this is a great example where academic research and industry are working hand in hand and this is allowing us to address some of these really fundamental problems that we have in contemporary physics.”

“It’s a great place to do science.”


With files from Angela Gemmill