Uncertain fate for Soudan underground physics lab


The University of Minnesota/MINOS lab in the Soudan Underground Mine features a large neutrino detection plate that can read data from an underground beam emitted from another lab in Illinois. (PHOTO: Ben Edwards, Flickr CC)

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that advanced physics research takes place a half mile beneath the earth at the retired Soudan Underground Mine on the Minnesota Iron Range. True, what they do there can be explained. (Mostly it’s research related to isolating the neutrino, a sub-atomic particle believed to be critical to understanding the universe). Yet it always seems that some great mystery is taking place amid the drifts of an old iron mine.

The future of the University of Minnesota’s laboratory in Soudan is now in doubt, according to a Feb. 4 Jodi Summit story in the Tower Timberjay. Funding for the MINOS research project is drying up. What’s left is being focused on another underground lab in Homestake, South Dakota.

Local leaders and university officials are looking for ways to keep the lab viable for future experimentation, but there is no apparently interest by the scientific community at this time. Labs in Europe are picking up the major new neutrino experiments. Even the work at Homestake in the Black Hills will require funding from Congress to stay viable, something very much in doubt in the current political climate.

Further, maintaining such a large underground space year-round is complicated. Losing the lab would mean losing personnel who keep an eye on things way, way down on the 27th Level. The Soudan Underground Mine is a state park, but many of its personnel were subsidized by the University project. Losing the physics lab would mean layoffs for technical workers at the park, according to the Timberjay story. Without them, finer aspects of the lab would degrade over time.

Research related to neutrinos has among the most cutting-edge in the physics community. Several of the recent Nobel prizes for physics have gone to scientists working on this topic, including one just last year.

An annotated description of the first recorded neutrino event in 1970 that has spurred significant research into the mysterious yet abundant particles in recent years. (Wikipedia)

An annotated description of the first recorded neutrino event in 1970 that has spurred significant research into the mysterious yet abundant particles in recent years. (Wikipedia)

UPDATE: I’ve amended the post to correct an error. I had written that the mine was on the Mesabi Iron Range, but of course Soudan is part of the Vermilion Iron Range. The region has come to be broadly known as the “Iron Range” in recent decades, even though there were three large and distinct iron ranges at the peak of natural ore extraction in the 20th century.


  1. Then what becomes of the NOvA facility in Ash River? Am I missing something, or does that become yet another big write-off for the U? It wasn’t four years ago that I was literally watching that thing get built.


  2. I am indifferent on this, through the years we hear or see something on TV or the MDN , but how close as far as employment of personnel, we have mostly been in the dark. On the other hand Science is a critical area with forward thinking Scientists, which I feel is important for our future.

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