NOvA project construction moves forward

By far the largest single recipient of stimulus funds within the College of Science and Engineering is the NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance (NOvA) detector facility, a state-of-the-art laboratory for investigating the role played by sub-atomic particles called neutrinos in the origins of the universe.

Ground was broken on the new facility near the Ash River in northern Minnesota in May 2009. Since then, the blasting work necessary for the massive 50-foot deep detector area has been completed, and construction has begun on other aspects of the project, which will be ready for preliminary business in spring 2011, said Bill Miller, laboratory supervisor. By the following summer, said Miller, "we'll have a completed detector."

NOvA north wall photo-300Eventually, a neutrino beam from Illinois' Fermi Lab will be directed to the NOvA site straight through the Earth, a nearly 500-mile journey, which will take less than three milliseconds. The project will help scientists answer questions about the neutrino's unique role as an elementary particle that may be simultaneously matter and antimatter.

Miller says that stimulus funds have put the project on a faster track than might otherwise have been expected. "We received much more money up front," he notes. "This allowed us to shorten the time schedule it took to get the building ready since the site prep and building work could all happen at the same time."

The NOvA project is intended to advance our understanding of the nature of matter itself, but the more than $40 million of stimulus money that it has brought to the University will also address some very practical economic concerns as well. In addition to involving scientific staff from some 28 institutions, NOvA will bring new jobs to the local economy of rural northern Minnesota. "Construction of the facility," said Miller "is expected to generate 60 to 80 jobs plus purchases of materials and services from U.S. companies." That's in addition to local staff that will be hired to maintain the facility and the 150 student jobs that are expected to be created by producing the 12,000 extruded PVC modules—each weighing a thousand pounds—that will be shipped to Ash River, glued together, and filled with scintillator oil, which is the actual medium used to track the progress of the elusive neutrinos.

Stimulus to the economy is desirable, of course, but the chief payoff of the project will always be scientific. "Our main goal," said Marvin Marshak, University professor of physics, "is to understand the matter/antimatter asymmetry in the universe." He adds, "The thing about basic research is that most of what gets done has little practical application. But, on the other hand, the economic impact of things that do have practical application is so major...but only in retrospect do we recognize it."