Iron Range physics lab looking for tenants

Level 27 of the former Soudan iron ore mine is still in need of a tenant. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been searching to fill the coming vacancy now that two large experiments have wrapped up in the Soudan Underground Mine's ...

Electronics get installed onto a Fermilab's neutrino detector in February 2014. Photo by Fermilab

Level 27 of the former Soudan iron ore mine is still in need of a tenant.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been searching to fill the coming vacancy now that two large experiments have wrapped up in the Soudan Underground Mine's physics lab.

Jim Essig, park manager at Soudan Underground Mine State Park, said the DNR's preference is to continue to have tenants conducting research in the lab - the lab has housed physics experiments since the 1980s - but they're not shutting the door on other opportunities. DNR staff has met with scientific research groups and private-sector companies interested in the lab space.

The mine, near Lake Vermilion, is open to visitors for two tours - one focused on the mine that operated from 1882-1962, and the other on science experiments conducted in the lab. The lab tours will take place on two more weekends this month and DNR staff are working to evaluate how the tours could continue next summer. Essig clarified that the tours of Soudan's mine will continue and aren't affected by the changes at the lab.

The funding for the experiments ending this year comes from the U.S. Department of Energy and is administered by Fermilab in Chicago, in a contract with the University of Minnesota. With the conclusion of the experiments, the DNR also needs to take into consideration the funding for the lab going forward. It could potentially be a partnership involving a university or having several universities splitting the cost for the ability to use the site, he said.


"I think what it's going to come down to, to a certain degree, is coming up with some ideas of what is really the cost to keep the lab side operational and who is going to cover those costs," he said.

A group of geoscientists from the Big Ten Academic Alliance toured Soudan's lab space on Saturday with University of Minnesota Duluth researchers in hope that it would pique their interest.

UMD geology professor Howard Mooers said this year's alliance meeting was a field trip to show researchers from the Big Ten universities both the Soudan mine and lab. If the cost to keep the lab was split between several universities within the Big Ten, it could be financially feasible to continue using the lab space for research, Mooers explained. Even if a collaboration doesn't come together, the tour helped spread the word about the available space.

"Hopefully these department heads will go back and talk to their deans and talk to other department heads and the awareness of this lab space will spread," Mooers said.

The meeting with the geoscientists was exciting, Essig said. In addition to the two physics experiments going on at the lab, experiments in microbiology and geology have also taken place at the Soudan mine. The lab offers a lot of research opportunities for different science disciplines and if universities collaborated, various science departments could have access to the lab, he said.

Essig said he also tells universities about the added benefit of schools touring the lab on field trips.

"Not only do we do the research, but we bring students in from area schools or throughout the state. We get to tell them about what we do here, which then makes kids ... really excited about geoscience or really excited about physics and maybe steer them in the direction that that would be a career choice. I think that's always been an added benefit to this site," Essig said.

There isn't a timeline at this point for securing a new tenant for the lab space, he said.


However, it'll be at least a year until the lab is cleared out and a new tenant can move in.

Although the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search concluded its research earlier this year and its equipment is headed for a new experiment in Ontario, equipment for the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search - MINOS for short - is still in the process of being moved out. MINOS has been searching for changes, or oscillations, in neutrinos shot in a beam underground to the Soudan mine from Fermilab. Neutrinos are the second-most abundant particles in the universe but remain poorly understood; they are referred to as "ghosts" because they have no electrical charge and rarely interact with each other.

The MINOS experiment, which has been in operation since 2003, ended this summer when the neutrino beam went down for annual maintenance. The experiment's electronics and equipment will go back to Fermilab to be used again in the future, but the detector's material recently began to be moved out and that process will continue into next year, said UMD physics professor Alec Habig.

"The big pieces of steel that make up what you think of when you think of the detector itself, they've got to be chopped up into smaller pieces to get back up out of the ground," Habig said.

Staff working in the lab has had their "eyes and ears open" for a new experiment that could move into the space. The neutrino experiment had a finite lifespan and they knew that a new experiment would eventually need to be found, but Habig said they've come up empty-handed so far.

A neutrino experiment began in Ash River to answer new questions raised by the MINOS experiment, he said. He added, "The Ash River experiment is still going strong and will be for another few years at least, and we're continuing the science we've been doing there. The stuff we did down (at the Soudan lab) answered some questions and raised others."

Mooers said he's concerned about the future of the lab if the DNR can't find a new tenant.

"The alternative is that if nobody moves in there, once the physics experiment is out, they shut the lights off, they shut the heat off and the place goes back to 50 degrees and 100 percent humidity and all the infrastructure begins to rust away. That seems like a real waste," Mooers said.


Essig said they're focused on finding a new tenant and haven't spent a lot of time considering alternatives if the space isn't leased again.

What To Read Next
Get Local