Tunnel Science

10 April 2015

THERE ARE rumblings in the scientific community. Today's cutting-edge physics is largely impossible without the use of underground space, and there have already been a number of interesting developments this year for the industry to take pride in.

Last month I highlighted the work of the ITA and the tunnelling community to help people living in cities and natural disaster-prone areas live better, safer lives. But tunnelling also helps advance human knowledge.

In January, the India Based Neutrino Observatory (INO) finally got the go ahead after four years of environmental and funding delays. Neutrinos are extremely subtle, non-reactive particles that pass through virtually everything. As a result, detectors are in deep mines or tunnelled deep into mountains, which filters out all the other 'noisier' particles. The USD 240M INO will be built with 1.3km of rock cover inside a mountain in a mountain in Tamil Nadu, India. It will be accessible only through a 2km approach tunnel that opens to three caverns, the largest of which will be 132m long by 26m wide by 30m high.

The Tohoku region of Japan has likely had enough of atom smashing technology, following the aftermath of the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami that resulted in the meltdown of one of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant's reactors. But particle accelerators are much safer, and the region is a leading candidate to house construction of the International Linear Collider (ILC). This 40km-long facility could total anywhere between USD 10-25bn, according to vague US Department of Energy estimates. And the solid granite of the proposed Japanese sites would keep it well protected. The ILC would fire electrons and positrons (positively charged electrons, a form of antimatter) into each other to simulate conditions shortly after the Big Bang.

Ready to break back into public consciousness, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of Switzerland is continuing to prove its usefulness. This behemoth is due to come back online this month with some hefty two-year upgrades to its power. Never mind the electron, this facility launches protons many thousands of times larger into one another. It earned a Nobel Prize in 2012 for filling in a blank in the Standard Model of particle physics with the discovery of the Higgs boson, first hypothesised in the 1960's.

Physicists aren't happy. What has been so far observed fails to explain some of the bigger problems of the field. So this time, when they turn the accelerator back on, they will attempt to challenge everything we have seen so far. Anyone interested should read up on the theory of Supersymmetry (SUSY). And finally in the US, the 4km-long Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which is second in power only to the LHC, is coming out of hibernation since it's last great feat in 2010; when it showed that at approximately four trillion degrees Celsius, normal matter breaks down into quark-gluon plasma. So while the LHC reaches to understand the new and exotic, the RHIC is using its still considerable power to peer more closely at the features of the types of matter we already know. All this activity, and we're not even three months into the year.