World-class science right beneath our feet: a reporter and a meteorologist go underground at the Sanford Lab

Thumbnail Img 1279

NewsCenter1 reporter Darsha Nelson and Chief Meteorologist Brant Beckman in front of the Yates Shaft cage (photo date: April 19, 2022)

LEAD, S.D. — With so much going on in the Black Hills, you might not realize there’s some revolutionary science going on way beneath the surface.

Chief Meteorologist Brant Beckman and I had the opportunity to go a mile underground at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead to see that world-class research in action.


The Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead stands on the grounds of the old Homestake Mine above the city of Lead.

The infrastructure of that mine created a near-perfect environment for world-leading science experiments in physics, biology, geology, and engineering.

The mine closed down in 2002, and up until then, was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America.

In 2006, a monetary donation from South Dakota philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, combined with a donation of the land by Barrick Gold Corp. to the State of South Dakota, brought the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority into existence. In 2007, the Sanford Underground Research Facility was created, and after a lengthy process to dewater the mine (pumps were shut off a year after the mine closed), SURF was dedicated in 2009.

Thumbnail Img 1311

Brant looks at a map of the Davis Campus at the 4850-level of SURF (photo date: April 19, 2022)

“SURF is really an interesting facility and very unique here, not only in the United States, but the world,” says Mike Headley, the Executive Director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority. “There are not a lot of deep underground labs in the world. This is actually the deepest one in the U.S. and the leading facility for underground science research in the U.S., and very competitive worldwide as well.”

But physics research was being done at the location long before its official dedication. In the mid-1960’s a chemist from Brookhaven National Lab, Dr. Ray Davis, conducted a solar neutrino experiment on the 4850-level. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in 2002. The area where Dr. Davis did his research is now known as the Davis Campus.


Thumbnail Img 1492

Looking at the size of the hoists, which move each cage up and down the shaft (photo date: April 19, 2022)

The surface at the Sanford Lab comprises 223 acres, while the underground facility is 7,700 acres.

The 4850-level is the main level for science. It’s accessed by cages (like industrial elevators) in the Ross and Yates shafts. The cages weigh seven-tons and are nine feet tall. Each cage can hold up to 28 people (36 in an emergency), and it takes more than 10 minutes to ride from the surface to the 4850-level. More than 6,000 feet of rope is wound around each hoist, which moves each cage.

While more than 370 miles of shafts and tunnels exist underground, Sanford only maintains about 12 miles for research and activities.

The facility does more than research, it also contributes to the local economy.

SURF was also selected to house the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (LBNF/DUNE), which will bring in significant spending and increase job creation. An economic impact study shows that from 2020-2029, the facility will create $572 million in household earnings, with nearly 90% of those economic impacts being West River.

“We’re expecting over 10 years to have 1.6 billion in economic output here in the state,” Headley says. “That should contribute to about 1,100 jobs here in the state as well, so it’s pretty impressive.”

Want to know what it’s like to ride in the cage? Check it out:

Want to see more of our underground adventure? Look no further:


Through two sets of clean rooms lies the Majorana Demonstrator, a collaboration of more than 100 researchers from across the world.

Clean? They mean it! Even the tiniest speck of dirt can damage the equipment and disrupt the experiment. Here’s Brant and I suiting up:

Majorana is designed to answer the question: are neutrinos their own antiparticle? Neutrinos were first discovered in the mid-1950’s, and because they’re so very elusive, scientists haven’t learned much about them since. In fact, we’ve never actually directly detected them. These little guys make up about a quarter of the universe, affecting the rotation of galaxies and the way it bends light from outer space.

“What we’re hoping to see is that when those two atoms decay at the exact same time, the neutrinos would meet, annihilate each other and then we would not see them leave the space,” Thompson says.

Brant and I were extremely lucky on our trip – the shield was removed so we could peer right inside where the detectors sit. We even got to see the detectors up close.

Thumbnail Img 1365

Brant (left) and Majorana scientist Jared Thompson (right) look into the shield for the Majorana Experiment (photo date: April 19, 2022)

The project isn’t new – in fact, Majorana has been collecting data for years, protected from cosmic radiation and interference by the mile of rock above.

“[The] idea for Majorana was to install a certain mass of germanium in a very low background area, such as a mile underground in radio pure copper that we created ourselves and cleaned, inside a layer of brick – lead bricks that we cleaned ourselves and know the history of,” says Jared Thompson, a scientist with Majorana Demonstrator. “[It’s] like a metaphor of listening to one conversation in a stadium; you have to make the stadium go quiet so you can hear the one little whisper between two people.”

That copper is made entirely underground through a chemical process that takes months. It’s not just any regular copper, either, it’s the world’s purest electroformed copper. I’ve never seen anything like it.


After a pit stop for coffee – looks like scientists need coffee just as much as journalists – we made our way to the Lux-Zeplin Experiment.

The Lux dark matter detector arrived at the Davis Campus back in the summer of 2012. It was replaced by the Lux-Zeplin, which is (at least) 100 times more sensitive than its predecessor. It’s been recognized as the most-sensitive dark matter detector in the world.

Thumbnail Img 1400

Dr. David Woodward (left) and Brant (right) in front of the Lux-Zeplin Experiment on the 4850-level at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (photo date: April 19, 2022)

They’re searching for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs).

“We’re looking to directly detect dark matter. It’s something that we know makes up about a quarter of the universe, but we’ve never directly detected it,” says Dr. David Woodward, a scientist with the Lux-Zeplin Experiment. “Very little is known about its properties or what it actually is.”

In the center of the lab is a massive tank, which holds the Lux-Zeplin detector. The detector contains 10 tons of liquid xenon and panels of photosensors, which will pick up light created when a WIMP passes through.

To protect it from extraneous radon emitted from the surrounding rocks, the entire experiment is surrounded by more than 70,000-gallons of deionized water.

“The concept is really simple. All we’re doing is waiting for dark matter particles to come and bump into our detector,” Dr. Woodward says.




Thumbnail Img 1570

Easily one of the most recognizable features in Lead, the Open Cut was the original site of the Homestake Mine, which at its time was the most productive gold mine in North America (photo date: April 19, 2022)

Tours of the underground aren’t available to the general public, but if you’re interested in learning more about the research going on at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, the Visitors Center in Lead is a fun and free way to do so.

Visitors can see a real cage, learn about all the experiments, see a scale model of the underground, and get an unobstructed view of the Open Cut from the observation deck.


Categories: Local News, South Dakota News