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NOvA Far Detector Building

NOvA Far Detector Building.

The University of Minnesota is building a science center that may unlock the mysteries of the universe.

The Science: On May 1, construction started on the first phase of a physics laboratory in Ash River, where the billion-year-old rock formations of far northern Minnesota provide the ideal location for one of the most advanced scientific laboratories in the world. Once completed, the University of Minnesota’s NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance (NOvA) laboratory will house $240 million worth of specialized laboratory equipment – including a 15,000 ton particle detector built by the U of M’s Physics Department.

The NOvA laboratory will allow more than 180 scientists from 28 world institutions to collaborate in conducting the world’s most advanced neutrino experiment. To study the properties of neutrinos, and what happens to them when they are in motion, the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) will send a half-mile wide intense neutrino beam underground from Fermilab in Chicago through Illinois and Wisconsin to the NOvA Detector Facility in Minnesota.

The new laboratory is expected to begin collecting data by 2012 and it is not yet known where this pure research will lead. However, scientists believe learning more about how neutrinos (the smallest-known bits of subatomic matter) interact with other matter and energy may help explain the origin of the universe, among other things. In the past, particle physics research has led to the development of many breakthrough technologies, including CAT scanners for medical imaging, the worldwide Web and levitation technology for high-speed trains.

The Site: The Ash River laboratory site is just a few miles from the Canadian border, near Voyageur’s National Park, one of North America’s most pristine wilderness areas. The park lies in the southern part of the Canadian Shield, representing some of the oldest exposed rock formations in the world. With 218,000 acres of outstanding scenery and unique geological conditions, Voyageur’s National Park has four major lakes and 30 smaller lakes, which comprise one-third of the park.

The location of the site offers other challenges as well. It is currently inaccessible more than eight months of the year due to extreme winter conditions and swampy terrain, there are no existing public utilities, the nearest town is over a half-hour drive away and the cell phone reception is spotty at best. The sparsely populated geographic area also makes finding qualified subcontractors more challenging than most projects.

The Construction: The sensitive laboratory equipment for the NOvA experiment requires an extraordinarily stable foundation, and the Ash River site provides an abundance of solid granite to serve as a foundation and a shield. The majority of the laboratory will be built deep underground, using the granite formations to form a bunker to provide the needed stability and prevent the sun’s gamma rays from interfering with the neutrino experiments.

Construction will include blasting a 50-foot-deep hole the size of three-fourths of a football field in the granite, which will be crushed on-site and used to build the three-mile long road into the site. Once the hole has been blasted and excavated, the underground portion of the laboratory will be built out of concrete, much of it formed and poured at the site. When complete, the underground and above-ground facility combined will be about the size of a football field.

Construction of the underground and above-ground laboratory facility is expected to take one and one-half years. Excavation and road construction are scheduled to be completed this summer and fall, and concrete form work will begin in late fall and resume in the spring, when the weather permits.

The NOvA project was among the first to receive stimulus money from the American Recovery Reinvestment Act and is one of the first major energy projects funded in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. The project is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and the University of Minnesota.

Read more about the NOvA experiment on the Fermilab website @

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