USD team strikes gold

USD team strikes gold
The latest project for a team of University of South Dakota researchers is a gold mine – literally.

The USD team is working to help develop the former Homestake Gold Mine at Lead, which was recently selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as home of the Deep Un- derground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL).

USD physics professors Christina Keller and Dongming Mei provided support in putting together the Homestake proposal.


Top physicists and other scientists from around the world will work with USD faculty and staff, said Keller, who also serves as associate dean of the USD College of Arts and Sciences.

"This is great news for science, not only at USD but for the entire state of South Dakota," Keller said. "Many of these experiments are potential Nobel prize-winning experiments."

However, the Homestake selection is only the beginning, Keller said. "DUSEL still has a ways to go. Now comes the work, after you land the project," she said.

The NSF has indicated its intention to provide $5 million a year for the next three years to develop a more specific technical design for the laboratory. The NSF Science Board, Congress and the White House must approve

the DUSEL project, estimated at $500 million, half of which would be used to develop scientific instrumentation for the laboratory.��

In addition to USD faculty, scientists from other South Dakota institutions, including South Dakota State University, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Dakota State University and Augustana College, are involved in research at the facility.

Keller foresees tremendous possibilities at Homestake.

"The South Dakota site has the potential to be the deepest site in the world. They did a remote quality inspection with a camera down the shaft, and everything is in good shape."

The DUSEL facility can provide benefits for every aspect of human life, Keller said.

"The work can be spun off to do medical research," she said. "Because of the fact we can measure low levels of activity, there can also be applications for Homeland Security."

The former Homestake Mine will be used by scientists from many fields, Keller predicted.

"If we go to the depth where there will be very hot temperatures and lights, we have opportunities for microbiologists to look at life in rather extreme conditions," she said. "There are a ton of engineering opportunities to figure out how to have this facility deep underground and make it accessible and safe."

Mei noted the opportunities for USD students and staff to conduct research at other sites, including possibly the Los Alamos National Lab. In turn, scientists and students from around the world can use the USD campus in Vermillion as well as the Homestake site, he said.

Because scientific equipment needs to avoid the cosmic rays which bombard airplane flights and the jostling of long-distance handling, new businesses may spring up in South Dakota to meet the specialized DUSEL needs, Mei said.

"We could have new manufacturers and shops in the state, which will help the economy," he said.

USD faculty are already contributing to experiments planned for Homestake and are establishing partnerships with other scientists. The USD Nuclear and Particle Physics Group, led by Mei, is working on projects to take advantage of not only the Homestake features but also the facility's closeness to Vermillion.

"Right now, scientists have to go to facilities in Canada, Japan or Europe to have access to deep underground laboratories similar to this proposed one," Mei said. "However, the unique feature offered by DUSEL that none of the other labs can offer is a planned Low-Background Counting Facility."

Such a facility seeks to block as much outside radiation as possible, including that produced by the mine itself, Mei said.

Besides the Low-Background Counting Facility, USD physicists are conducting experiments on dark matter and studying fundamental properties of the neutrino, an elementary particle with tiny mass and no electric charge. The efforts are led by scientists at Los Alamos National Lab and at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

The USD research team includes two undergraduates – physics majors Jason Spaans of Larchwood, IA, and Keenan Thomas of Rapid City. They are part of the Nuclear and Particle Physics Group.

The team is seeking a $500,000 grant for the background counting facility and a $3 million grant for dark matter detection.

"Dark matter constitutes 23 percent of the known universe, yet we know very little about it," Spaans said. "Compare that to visible matter, which is only 4 percent of the universe, and it becomes evident why we need to learn more about dark matter."

The fact that two undergraduates have the opportunity to work on such important research is somewhat unusual. However, Keller believes this will be the norm rather than the exception in USD's relationship with DUSEL.�

"The research enterprise is an excellent way of increasing students' enthusiasm for science," Keller said. "USD has a long and rich tradition of undergraduate research, and the national labs have included undergraduates in their research activities for many years."

Because of the DUSEL project, Spaans and Thomas both said they would consider remaining in South Dakota after graduation. They could use the project for research and also continue their education, they said.

Such options were previously not possible in South Dakota, Spaans said. "The state now has a national lab with cutting-edge research," he said.

The DUSEL project reflects USD's move to NCAA Division I status in academics as well as athletics, Keller said.

"It isn't just sports," she said. "This affects the research side of the university."

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