Building a lab to shine a light on dark matter

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Adapt and overcome was the motto of the team from HTROON constructions, which last month handed over the keys to the Stawell Underground Physics Lab.

When asked if building a scientific lab more than 1 kilometre underground was challenging, Senior Project Manager Chris Lindsay lets out an exasperated laugh and asks: “How long have you got?”

The lab in question is none other than the Stawell Underground Physics Lab, which was built over the course of 18 months in the Stawell Gold Mine.

The lab is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere and is the new epicentre of dark matter research in the world.

Dark matter makes up 85 per cent of the universe. Like air, it's all around us - except we’ve never seen it and scientists know very little about it.

That is in part because dark matter particles don’t absorb, reflect, or emit light.

For decades scientists have been trying to detect dark matter. When they do, it'll change the way we think about the universe.

Professor Elisabetta Barberio, the Lead Researcher on the project from the University of Melbourne says it’s an exciting time to be a scientist.

“If we discover dark matter, it will be one of the century's major discoveries,” she says.

Deep underground is the best place to look for it. Without noise, light, or anything to interfere with the experiments.

This is why the lab has been built in an active gold mine in the regional Victorian town of Stawell.

Supported by $5 million from the Victorian and Commonwealth governments, Ballarat construction firm HTROON took on the project to build the lab.Three men in high vis jackets standing in the underground lab

Chris Lindsay says it was a project unlike any other the 153-year-old business has taken on.

“It was a project consisting of many unknowns but with great challenge comes great reward,” he says.

HTROON has been run by the Troon family in Ballarat for 153 years.

“Being a regional-based builder, a lot of our work and our projects are also regional,” says Chris.

“We take great pride in the contribution we’ve had to the Ballarat & surrounding regions so when the opportunity arose to be a part of the SUPL it interested us greatly”

But building in a mine more than 1km underground posed some unique challenges.

“None of our team had worked in a mine before,” Chris says, adding that “being a live operating mine 24/7 365 days a year complicated the project further.”

Those challenges were evident right from the start.

“We had a pre-tender trip up and down the mine to have a look, however the project still posed many unknowns which required a lot of pre-planning like how we would get our materials down the mine.”he says.

From individually testing materials for radiation, to specialist driving courses, and learning the mine’s radio call systems - each day presented a new problem to solve.

“I think the big phrase and motto we had on the job was that we went in with an adapt and overcome attitude,” says Chris.

“We knew every day there could be a new challenge - and that’s fine, we would find a way as a team to overcome it,” he says.

One of the biggest tasks was mixing the concrete. Each batch would need to last the 45-minute drive down the mine, and still be wet enough to lay once they got down.

“A lot of thought went into the concrete phase. We engaged our friends at BORAL & they provided us with a specialised mix design which took a couple of test runs - which really worked a treat. From there we had to mix our own concrete using the mines batching plant,” he says.

Despite the challenges, the gravity of the project is not lost on Chris who says it’s one of his career highlights.

With stage 1 complete, the lab is ready to host the SABRE South dark matter direct detection experiment, which will be installed over the coming months.

SABRE South will run alongside the existing SABRE experiment in Italy, which Professor Barberio says has already detected dark matter.

“In Italy, there is one experiment that claimed they discovered dark matter, but to be sure we need to replicate that experiment and the best place to replicate that experiment is here in Stawell,” she says.

The discovery would not only attract the likes of a Nobel prize but put the small town of Stawell on the global stage.

For Chris and HTROON being part of project that could uncover the secrets of the universe is something they’re very proud of.

“It’s something I would definitely be telling the grandkids about,” laughs Chris.

For more information on the Stawell Underground Physics Lab visit: Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory.