Particle physics experiments

After a decade, SNOLAB is now “the best place in the world for next-generation experiences”

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

The laboratory space located 2 km underground is ideal for research that must be carried out shielded from the cosmic rays found on the surface.

There is enough clean space for a dozen multidisciplinary experiments.

“It’s unlike any other underground experience you’ve ever had,” said Acting Executive Director Clarence Virtue.

Clarence Virtue, Acting Executive Director of SNOLAB, sits in front of the HALO (Helium and Lead Observatory) experiment. (Provided by SNOLAB)

“Everywhere there are these experiments looking for dark matter or looking for neutrinoless double beta decay or looking for supernovae.”

SNOLAB celebrates ten years since the official opening of the multi-laboratory facility.

Virtue explained that there has been confusion over the years between SNOLAB and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO). The latter was a one-time experiment that completed data collection in 2006. Research from the SNO experiment was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for Art MacDonald.

SNOLAB is an extension of the built space for SNO and allows a number of different teams to conduct experiments. It has become world famous for what it has to offer.

Virtue said there are other similar labs around the world, with some embedded in 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 that depth,” he said, adding that they are able to reduce the rays cosmic by a factor of 50 million.

“[Researchers] are looking for very rare things that haven’t been seen yet, and just cosmic rays are the backdrop for these increasingly sensitive experiments,” Virtue said.

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

“There are a lot of things that can be done in the underground environment,” Virtue said.

Biology experiments at SNOLAB

“SNOLAB is really the only place in Canada where we can do these experiments,” said Christopher Thome, who is part of the REPAIR project. It stands for Research on the Effects of the Presence and Absence of Ionizing Radiation.

It examines the role of natural low-level background ionizing radiation, to which Thome explains we are exposed daily from sources such as 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 is working with cell lines, fruit flies and yeasts.

“In order to conduct these experiments, you need a facility like SNOLAB where you can go deep underground to shield yourself from this cosmic radiation.”

Next Generation Experiences

Virtue said the “hot topic” in the field right now is the search for what’s called neutrinoless double-beta decay.

“It’s also the future of SNOLAB.”

“That’s what makes SNOLAB the lab of the future, because we’re absolutely the best location in the world for these next-generation experiments.”

Along with its reputation among scientists, this means the facility is seeking large amounts of federal and provincial government funding to help with its operations. The facility’s funding cycle extends from 2023 to 2029.

“The Canada Foundation for Innovation has a tough job because there are a lot of requests for money available in its envelope for these kinds of projects.”

“SNOLAB is actually asking for almost 20% of whatever is available.”

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