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SURF’s Up as Levy Audience Hears About Underground Science in the Heart of South Dakota

On April 27, Deb Wolf, education and public relations director at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, S.D., participated via Zoom as this week’s speaker for the Levy Lecture Series. SURF is the premier underground science laboratory in the United States, and one of very few in the world. Lead is located about an hour north of Mount Rushmore in the western part of South Dakota in the northern Black Hills mountain range.

Ms. Wolf is a career educator who formerly taught high school chemistry. Two-and-a-half years ago she was recruited for “the opportunity of a lifetime” job at SURF. She guides SURF’s education and outreach teams as they work to translate groundbreaking physics research into learning opportunities for K-12 students, teachers, and the public. Two months ago, her portfolio increased; she is also responsible for general public outreach and diversity efforts, known by its acronym IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, access).

Anyone can tell, within a few minutes of hearing her speak, that Ms. Wolf is an enthusiastic, almost joyous, ambassador and advocate for the research and outreach taking place at SURF. She is the first to admit that she doesn’t understand the intricacies of the research being conducted around her, but she doesn’t need to. She understands the bigger picture.

Ms. Wolf says, “My background in education, I feel, really allows me to help students and teachers connect the science that’s happening in their classrooms that they need to learn, to the unsettled science, those questions that we haven’t yet answered, that’s being researched here at SURF.”

Several things make SURF special.

SURF is located in a former gold mine. It consists of 200 acres above ground and 7,700 acres underground, plus an additional 370 miles of tunnels and shafts, all created and used in the pursuit of mining gold. In fact, for 125 years, the mine had been prolific and profitable. But when the price of gold dropped at the end of the twentieth century, the depths needed to mine additional gold did not make economic sense. The mine was no longer profitable to operate and it closed in 2002.

Three things happened to create the world-class research facility that became SURF. First, Barrick Corporation, which had acquired the Homestake Gold Mine, donated the property to the state of South Dakota. Second, the state donated funds and created the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority to manage the facility. Third, a generous philanthropist, Mr. T. Denny Sanford, donated $70 million to the project. With this support, crews worked to de-water and refurbish underground spaces, creating world-class laboratory spaces a mile underground. The former gold mine was transformed into a first-rate research facility known and admired worldwide.

Today SURF is funded in part by the Department of Energy and is known as a “user facility.” Researchers from all over the globe come to SURF to use their facility because of the special conditions it offers. Physicists who study, what Ms. Wolf calls, “teeny tiny almost impossible-to-detect particles of matter called sub-atomic particles” cannot detect them above ground because the Earth is constantly being bombarded with (harmless) cosmic rays coming from the Sun and outer space. However, when those same scientists travel nearly one mile underground, to a depth of 4,850 feet, it is, as Ms. Wolf described, “cosmically quiet. About 10 million times cosmically quiet.” The rock acts as a shield to block cosmic rays from getting through and allows the sub-atomic particles to be detected more easily.

Safety is the top priority at SURF. The scientists and technicians who work in the lab “commute” to their workplaces via a metal elevator called the “cage.” The cage leaves on a strict schedule based on assigned time slots; if you are late and miss your ride, you are out of luck going to work that day. There is also a dress code. Every person traveling to the underground must wear high-visibility clothing, steel-toed boots, hard hat, headlamp, safety glasses, and a self-contained self-rescue device to be used in case of emergency.

The cage is expensive to operate. For economic efficiency, but still within safety parameters, SURF likes the cage to be full when in use. When COVID hit, SURF instituted additional mandatory requirements for travelling in the cage: a face shield, a half-face respirator, and gloves. Like exclusive clubs and restaurants, if you aren’t dressed for the occasion, you don’t get admitted.

It takes 12 minutes to get to the 4,850 foot level. Ms. Wolf showed a video snippet of the view as the cage descends. It is dark, noisy, and to one reporter, a little creepy and slightly claustrophobic.

Ms. Wolf shared other amazing statistics from SURF. A random sample: SURF’s underground pump station processes and treats 700 million gallons of water annually. About 650 gallons of water seeps into the abandoned shafts of the facility every minute, and if the pumping station was not able to keep up with the volume, the water would eventually rise and seep into the labs on the 4850 Level. The processed water is cleaned of dirt, minerals, and toxins, then tested before being released into the Gold Run Creek of South Dakota. For the past 12 years, the waste water treatment plant at SURF has received special awards for outstanding operation and environmental compliance from the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It is a responsibility they take very seriously.

Scientists at SURF conduct research in the fields of physics, biology, geology, and engineering. Particle physicists and astrophysicists take advantage of this “cosmogenically quiet” space to study minute sub-atomic particle interactions. Some of those interactions have to do with dark matter and neutrinos.

As Ms. Wolf explained, everything is made of matter, but the matter that scientists understand is only about 4% of all of the matter that’s out in the universe. The rest of it – 23% dark matter and 73% dark energy – has yet to be seen or measured. The experiment that will attempt to detect dark matter will be going “live” soon and is called LUX ZEPLIN, or LZ.

Another area of research involves neutrinos. Neutrinos are fundamental particles that exist all around us; a thousand trillion neutrinos pass through our bodies every second. SURF is teaming up with Fermilab here in Chicago to construct the largest particle physics experiment ever attempted on US soil. The experiment, currently in the pre-excavation phase, is called LBNF/DUNE, which stands for Long Baseline Neutrino Facility/Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. Pre-excavation and excavation will take years to complete. Ms. Wolf shared a video developed by Fermilab describing the experiment’s hypothesis. She tells her young students, “You could be working on this one day!”

Anyone wishing to learn more about the amazing research being done at SURF, to be inspired by Ms. Wolf’s excitement about science, and to see the video of the cage ride, among other fascinating elements of her talk may visit the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.

By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.


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