Eye On KELOLAND: The Dune Project


LEAD, S.D. (KELO) — The Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota was once the Homestake Mine. Now, it is home to many world leading science projects, like the Dune Experiment.

“It is an experiment to study neutrinos which are one of the most populous particles in the universe but we understand very little about them,” Patrick Weber, Division Head of the South Dakota Dune Project Division, said.

Neutrinos are tiny particles that do not react much, if it all, with matter on Earth’s surface.

“The sun creates neutrinos and every second. Seven billion neutrinos pass through your thumb but throughout your entire life there’s only a 25-percent chance one will interact with your body,” Weber said.

This experiment will shoot a beam of neutrinos from the Firmelab in Illinois to the Sanford Lab in South Dakota.

“The neutrinos are so hard to discover that at the surface, there’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of other particles or cosmic rays or things like that that make it very difficult to discover neutrinos. An example that I give is that it’s trying to listen to a pin drop at a rock concert,” Weber said.

Since the Sanford Research facility is almost a mile underground, the neutrinos are more likely to be detected.

The Dune Experiment is still in its very early stages. Here is what’s happening now.

“We have to excavate large caverns with about 8-thousands tons of rock that has to come up from the underground to create a space for those detectors to be built inside of,” Weber said.

The Sanford Lab is located in a mountainous area and there is not a lot of flat space to house some important components of the experiment.

“So the Firmelab, which is spearheading the efforts, put out a call for a facility to be able to receive catalog, a warehouse to bring out, at the appropriate time, all of the pieces to this giant refrigeration unit plus a few other things that they need coming from other places,” Chris Chiller, Whitewood Economic Development Operations Director, said.

Chris Chiller is the Whitewood Economic Development Operations Director. He’s also a former physicist who worked at the Underground Research Facility. The city of Whitewood, along with a few other places, are competing to provide this warehouse facility for the Dune Experiment.

“What they were looking for was a large area where they could lay down the pieces out in the yard and then a giant warehouse and that’s something that we don’t have available here in Western South Dakota and in the Northern Hills,” Chiller said.

The warehouse could be about 60 thousand square feet, the required amount of square footage needed for the dune experiment components. The entire Whitewood tech campus is 36 and a half acres.”

“We wanted to understand what was in the area, what groups were interested, we are going to draft a request for proposal in the coming year-ish that will give us an opportunity to actually compete that,” Weber said.

The multi-billion dollar Dune Experiment is roughly a 10 year project.

“There may be applications to come that are difficult to predict but it’s really a great opportunity to be involved in something that will affect the entire world not just South Dakota,” Chiller said.

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