Sudbury

After decade, SNOLAB now 'best location in world for future generation experiments'

Over the past decade, SNOLAB in Greater Sudbury has built a reputation among scientists around the globe. The clean space two kilometres underground means it's ideal for research that needs to be conducted away from the cosmic rays found on surface. It's become world-renowned for what it has to offer.

Underground lab celebrating 10 years of offering clean space for multi-disciplinary research

The view inside the SNO+ experiment at SNOLAB deep underground in Greater Sudbury. SNO+ is a physics experiment which searches for neutrinoless double-beta decay. (Supplied by SNOLAB)

Over the past decade, SNOLAB in Greater Sudbury, Ont., has built a reputation among scientists around the globe.

The lab space located 2 km underground means it's ideal for research that needs to be conducted away from the cosmic rays found on the surface. 

There's enough cleanspace for about a dozen multi-disciplinary experiments.

"It's unlike any other underground experience you've ever had," said Clarence Virtue, the interim executive director.

Clarence Virtue, the interim executive director of SNOLAB, sits in front of the HALO (helium and lead observatory) experiment. (Supplied by SNOLAB)

"All over the place, there are these experiments looking for dark matter or looking for neutrinoless double beta decay or looking for supernovae."

SNOLAB is marking ten years since the multi-lab facility officially opened.

Virtue explained that there has been confusion over the years between SNOLAB and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO). The latter was a single experiment which finished data collection in 2006. The research from the SNO experiment received the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics for Art MacDonald. 

SNOLAB is an expansion to the space built for SNO, and allows a number of different teams to conduct experiments. It's become world-renowned for what it has to offer.

Virtue said there are other similar labs around the world, some built into road tunnels, mountains or other mines

"But SNOLAB is the deepest of all the facilities, and that means it has the lowest flux of cosmic rays that penetrate to that depth," he said, adding that they are able to reduce cosmic rays by a factor of 50 million.

"[Researchers] are looking for very rare things that haven't been seen yet, and simply the cosmic rays are a background to these increasingly sensitive experiments," Virtue said.

Using space at SNOLAB has become sought after by scientists from around the world to conduct experiments in particle astrophysics, geology, biology and quantum computing.

"There's lots of things that can be done in the underground environment," Virtue said.

Biology experiments at SNOLAB

"SNOLAB is really the only place in Canada that we can do those experiments," said Christopher Thome who is part of the REPAIR Project. That stands for Researching the Effects of the Presence and Absence of Ionizing Radiation.

It examines the role of low-level, natural background ionizing radiation, which Thome explains we are exposed to daily from sources like cosmic rays from space, and isotopes from soils and rocks. Depending on the results, it would help to understand the role of ionizing radiation in cancer.

The team is in the early stages of the experiment and works with cell line, fruit flies and yeast. 

"In order to conduct those experiments you need a facility like SNOLAB where you can go deep underground to shield out from that cosmic radiation."

Future generation experiments

Virtue said the 'hot topic' in the field right now is the search for what is called neutrinoless double-beta decay

"It's also the future of SNOLAB."

"That's what makes SNOLAB the lab of the future because we are absolutely the best location in the world for these future generation experiments."

With its reputation among scientists it means the facility seeks out large amounts of funding from the federal and provincial governments to help with operations. The facility's funding cycle runs from 2023-2029.

"The Canada Foundation for Innovation has a tough job because there are lots of requests for money available in their envelope for these kinds of projects."

"SNOLAB is effectively asking for almost 20 per cent of everything that is available."

SNOLAB is also nearing the end of its search for a new executive director. Virtue said there should be news within the next month or two.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela Gemmill

Journalist

Angela Gemmill is a CBC journalist who covers news in Sudbury and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @AngelaGemmill. Send story ideas to angela.gemmill@cbc.ca

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