Unraveling the mysteries of the Universe in a deep underground mine
Have you ever imagined that two kilometers below the surface there may be a physics lab with scientists and ultramodern equipment to unravel mysteries of the Universe? It looks like a scene straight out of a science fiction movie, but it is one of Vale's major investments in the area of innovation.
Considered the deepest and cleanest laboratory in the world, the Snolab (Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Lab) is nestled in the depths of our Creighton mine, in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. With huge tanks filled with Argon, a noble gas similar to nitrogen, and other cooled gases, the laboratory enhances scientific research production and generates and disseminates new knowledge to the mining chain.
Snolab for the world
Among the main studies conducted at the site is one that is looking into a rare radioactive process called neutrino-less double beta decay, which could explain the development of matter and of the world. Some research projects are in search, for example, for particles of dark matter left over from the Big Bang, the great explosion that gave rise to the Universe. Abundant in the Cosmos, neutrino is one of these particles. Electric charge-free and with an extremely small mass, it is considered a key element, because it can relate both with matter and dark matter.
- The SNO (Sudbury Neutrino Observer) detector is a sphere measuring 12 meters in diameter where experiments were conducted between 2002 and 2006 to identify the subatomic particles.
- The Snolab cave is the largest underground scientific facility in the world. Scientists study neutrinos, hard-to-identify subatomic particles present throughout the Universe - everywhere from in our nails to the stars.
- The space that houses the neutrino detector is 34 meters in height (equivalent to an 11-story building) and 22 meters in diameter (1.5 times more than the base of the world-famous Tower of Pisa, in Italy).
- Boat floating in the 22-meter-in-diameter sphere that forms Snolab's neutrino detector.
- Measuring 6 meters in diameter, this bubble occupies the inner area of the detector and, between 2002 and 2006, was filled with heavy water - a substance used for scientific experiments. The aim was to identify neutrino interactions in this liquid.
- A multidisciplinary team of 60 researchers from various nationalities work in the underground facilities divided into two shifts.
- Scientists are currently reformulating the neutrino detector. Instead of heavy water, other liquids will be used, so as to allow the observation of other spectra and neutrino interactions.
- Before entering the facilities, researchers and visitors must go through a rigorous cleaning process: Sweat, dust and other particles can interfere with the ultra-sensitive detectors.
- In the image, one can see the photomultiplier tubes, responsive to light, and strings forming the inner structure of the neutrino detector.
- The Snolab facilities are in an area attached to the Creighton mine, at Vale Canada, where our company has nickel operations.
- To reach the underground facilities, workers use an elevator that travels the 2-km route in 4 minutes.
- Large equipment is used in the Snolab experiments. "We need to disassemble them, bring them down, and then reassemble them. It is a process similar to that which Vale does with the machinery used in mining," said Snolab director Nigel Smith.
Snolab for Vale
Snolab also serves as a mounting base for the three-dimensional seismic monitoring system called Pups (Polaris Underground Project at Snolab), which provides detailed information about seismic activity to the mining industry. This geotechnical information, for example, help us to plan deep mine excavations.
Researcher and lab director Nigel Smith says Snolab has several research projects underway that can be applied to Vale's business and to mining. Some of them are related to rock excavations and drilling, activities commonly performed by this industry.
The Earth as a shield