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Virginia Tech proposes national lab in Giles County


BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 25, 2004 – Virginia Tech believes that Giles County, 30 minutes from the university, would be the ideal site for the nation's next Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory and is submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation to build a national laboratory 7,000 feet under Butt Mountain.

Project leader Bruce Vogelaar in physics, Robert Bodnar in geosciences, and Matthew Mauldon in civil and environmental engineering are responding to the NSF request for proposals for a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), where experiments in physics, geosciences, mining, geoengineering, and other areas could be carried out.

Although the proposal is not due until January 10, 2005, members of the research team will meet with county officials Monday night to explain the project, since community support is part of the proposal.

"Research at the site would include study of deep outer space, the particles the sun and other stars send shooting though the earth, a protected environment and new technologies for creating pure supersensitive radiation sensors and pure fluids for semiconductors, the science for locating and wresting petroleum and minerals from the earth, how rocks clean up water and what we could learn from that process, how far under the earth life exists, and mining technologies that will extend our access to the earth's resources," said Bodnar

Both the research process and research results would be shared. In addition to researchers, teachers and students would be able to use the Internet to observe or participate, "and we'll have tours for groups such as high school science teachers," Bodnar said.

"The university is fully behind the pursuit of this ambitious research project," said Fenwick.

The proposal, due January 10, will propose a specific site for the deep mine, a conceptual design of the infrastructure necessary, identification of an initial suite of experiments, and the vision for a longer-term (30 year) program. The NSF will select three to five proposals and provide up to $500,000 to each for six months to create detailed technical designs. The final selection will probably be made in late 2005 or early 2006, and construction would begin in 2008 and could take four years. NSF funding would pay for construction and scientific equipment. Once the facility is completed, additional research support on the order of $200 million over 30 years would come from sponsors interested in specific projects.

Vogelaar, associate professor of physics, explains why physicists want to go deep underground. "We are studying rare events so we need an environment without background radiation. At the Earth's surface, cosmic rays are always present. Deep underground, this radiation is reduced to the point that you can see rare events. We will place huge detectors thousands of feet underground so that cosmic radiation is filtered out by rock and dirt and we can learn the properties of elementary particles."

New areas of research for a deep underground lab

The first deep underground mine in the world was the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, where Raymond Davis of the University of Pennsylvania made discoveries about the universe in the 1960s. Subsequently, Masatoshi Koshiba of the University of Tokyo used a lead-zinc mine near Tokyo in the 1980s. Both scientists received the Nobel in Physics in 2002. Now, there are deep underground laboratories in locations around the world, but only limited options within the United States. Approximately seven sites are competing to be the next deep, underground laboratory in the United States.

A condition of the new site is that it offers opportunities for research in fields in addition to physics. Scientists from several universities formed the EarthLab steering committee and identified research in geosciences, geoengineering, geomicrobiology, environment, hydrology, and mining technologies that would be advanced by a deep underground lab.

"Giles County is ideal because the site offers geological features unique among the seven known sites competing for the lab," said Bodnar, University Distinguished Professor in Geosciences at Virginia Tech and project spokesman. The limestone formations are typical of much of the earth's rock where petroleum and minerals are found and, although these resources do not exist in Giles, study of the rock's characteristics deep underground will advance exploration. Meanwhile, engineers are interested in fracture properties at depth and in hydrogeology, particularly as it relates to the fracture system and thrust faults, Mauldon said.

Engineers also have questions about the design of subsurface space and tunnels at great depth. "DUSEL provides an opportunity to use remote sensing methods such as seismic tomography to make inferences about the characteristics of the rock mass adjacent to the underground lab, then to verify those predictions with core drilling or further excavation," Mauldon said.

The DUSEL will also allow engineers to develop technologies and a better understanding of how to develop tunnels and caverns at that depth. "Through experimentation, observation, and monitoring in a DUSEL in sedimentary rocks, the geoengineering research community will have an extraordinary opportunity to learn about engineering characteristics of a layered rock mass," Mauldon said. "The knowledge gained will facilitate well-planned development of subsurface space to benefit society."

And life scientists will be able to study microorganisms to help determine the temperature and chemical limits for life. "An underground lab will allow us to study such organisms in a natural setting, rather than a simulated lab environment. We will also study the roll of microbes in mineral growth and weathering," Bodnar said.

Who will participate?

"The expertise to use such a facility does not come from one place. We will only succeed if we have support from researchers across the country," said Bodnar. "We are inviting researchers from all over the country to visit and consider doing research here. It is critical that our team includes leading researchers in these fields from throughout the United States."

People from all over the world will have the opportunity to see beautiful Giles County when they participate in research that is advancing science in numerous fields and benefiting humanity.

For further information go to: http://www.phys.vt.edu/~kimballton.



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