Sanford Lab planning for long future with official DOE designation, next generation experiments

LEAD — As the Sanford Lab prepares a proposal to become formally recognized as a Department of Energy User Facility, scientists from all over the world met virtually to discuss a myriad of future experiments that would maximize the use of the entire underground space and solidify the future of the Lead facility for decades to come.

Mike Headley, executive director of the S.D. Science and Technology Authority which manages the Sanford Lab, said his staff is working on a proposal to become an officially recognized User Facility for the Department of Energy Office of Science. Currently the Sanford Underground Research Facility is funded through the federal agency, because it provides facility space and resources for major science experiments of worldwide interest. But the official designation as a User Facility would allow the Sanford Lab to have access to resources that aren’t otherwise available. Additionally, he said it would ensure a set of standards that the Sanford Lab would be required to provide to facility users such as scientists.

“It is a big deal to get a User Facility designation,” Headley said. “It raises our recognition as a research facility, allowing us to compete for science resources. It will enable us to provide additional services to our user community and apply for funding to support those services. This is not funding to directly build and operate a given experiment, but funding for SDSTA to provide more comprehensive services in support of the experiments.”

Headley said he expects to have a proposal submitted by the middle of next year, and the staff is currently in the planning stages for the proposal.

Meanwhile, Sanford Lab Science Director Jaret Heise said 88 scientists from all over the U.S., with representation from the UK, Switzerland, Italy, China and Canada, as well as other countries, met virtually to discuss even more science experiments for the lab. Currently the Sanford Underground Research Facility hosts 27 experiments that involve 85 institutions in eight countries. But these scientists gave 18 presentations for new experiments regarding neutrinos, dark matter, nuclear astrophysics, quantum information systems, geology, biology and engineering. Some specific experiments included planning for a next generation LZ dark matter experiment, a neutrinoless double beta decay experiment that could employ 10 to 100 tons of enriched germanium; an experiment that would use quantum sensors to detect gravity waves and ultra light dark matter; and quantum computers that would improve performance when shielded in an underground lab.

Neutrinoless double beta decay is a theory scientists have been testing, which could help explain the existence of matter in the universe. Heise explained that neutrinos are produced in common particle interactions, such as fusion reactions that power the sun or radioactive decay of potassium in bananas. But scientists have good reason to believe that if they can observe neutrinoless double beta decay, they will have proof that neutrinos are both matter and antimatter. That’s because according to the Big Bang Theory, the universe included equal amounts of antimatter and matter, which would have annihilated each other to produce a universe of pure energy, with no physical matter or life. But if neutrinos can be both matter and antimatter, it could explain the existence of matter in the universe. If that happens, scientists say it could rewrite the laws of physics in our world.

Indirect evidence for dark matter is observed through gravitational force, Heise said. In fact, based on the speed at which stars orbit the galaxy, scientists believe dark matter comprises the majority of matter in the universe. The detection of dark matter through experiments such as the LZ, will help scientists develop a greater understanding of our universe.

Quantum computers, Heise said, can help scientists solve some, but not all, difficult problems, particularly those in quantum chemistry, physics, and math. He quoted famed theoretical physicist Richard Feynman to explain, saying “Trying to find a computer simulation of physics seems to me to be an excellent program to follow out. The real use of it would be with quantum mechanics. Nature isn’t classical, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical.”

Quantum computers are computers which use the properties of quantum physics. Rather than simply using 1s and 0s, a quantum computer has the potential to process as both a 0 and 1 in superposition and entanglement.  Quantum technology exists and is in use, but giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Google, as well as other scientists, dream of developing the science in a self-contained computer.

Additionally, Heise said there is also interest among geologists for experiments that span more than one underground level in elevation from 10 to 100 meters deep, and among biologists to conduct studies in the deep holes and shafts of the lab.

“While some specific experiments were highlighted as examples, discussions focused more on the future direction of these various fields,” Heise said. “There was also recognition that underground labs like SURF can bring different research communities together to explore synergies.”

Headley said decisions about which experiments are built in the Sanford Lab are made based on scientific merit and the lab’s ability to allocate resources toward the project for safe operation. The decisions, he said, are made in cooperation with the Department of Energy Office of Science.

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