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SNOLAB is Canada’s deep underground research lab, where background radiation is reduced by a factor of 50 million and further mitigations allow experiments to detect interactions such as those generated by a single neutrino.Gerry Kingsley

Questions about the early evolution of our universe are inherently difficult to answer, yet scientists believe understanding neutrinos – and especially explorations into a rare process called neutrinoless double-beta decay – can help to unlock some of these mysteries.

Although they are one of the most abundant subatomic particles in the universe, neutrinos are difficult to detect since they have no electric charge and interact very weakly with matter. “Previous research findings inspired the hypothesis that neutrinos are their own antiparticles,” says Clarence Virtue, interim executive director at SNOLAB, Canada’s deep underground research laboratory, located in Vale’s Creighton mine near Sudbury, Ontario. “That’s a property that no other elementary particle has and, if proven, this will allow us to build neutrinos correctly into the standard model of particle physics.”

Understanding this type of radioactive decay could yield significant insights on how we ended up with a matter-dominated universe when equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the Big Bang. Dr. Virtue reports that two leading experiments probing neutrinoless double-beta decay – nEXO and LEGEND-1000 – have both indicated SNOLAB as their facility of choice.

Observing neutrinoless double-beta decay wouldn’t be the first time a discovery at the SNOLAB site fundamentally changed physics: in 1990, scientists from several Canadian universities started an experiment that eventually led to the discovery that neutrinos have mass. This changed our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and shifted our view of the universe.

At the same time, SNOLAB secured funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which enabled the expansion into a world-class facility with 5,000 square feet of clean lab space and a broad multi-experiment program. Operating at a depth of 6,800 feet, “there are two kilometres of rock above SNOLAB, shielding the detectors from cosmic radiation that bombards the Earth’s surface,” says Dr. Virtue. “That’s a significant advantage for experiments looking at very rare and subtle events. Another advantage is that the entire lab operates as a Class 2000 or better cleanroom.”

In addition to the astroparticle physics that makes up the bulk of SNOLAB’s scientific program, the unique environment in the lab also facilitates research in biology, geology and quantum computing. Since first receiving CFI funding, SNOLAB has significantly expanded its infrastructure and scientific support capabilities for many types of experiments.

Beyond providing an opportunity for Canadian research teams to participate in world-leading research, SNOLAB also contributes to the development of highly qualified personnel, training hundreds of students as well as engineers, technicians, tradespeople and other professionals.

This powerful combination of talent and infrastructure recently catalyzed a timely response when the coronavirus pandemic led to a shortage of ventilators, says Dr. Virtue.

In partnership with colleagues around the world and with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, TRIUMF and McDonald Institute in Canada, SNOLAB scientists leveraged their expertise in gas handling systems to develop the Mechanical Ventilator Milan (MVM), a simplified ventilator made from easily available parts, he says. “The idea was to make the design and manuals freely available. All the expertise that was needed – from project management, quality control, testing and writing the manuals to shepherding the project through Health Canada approval – existed within the particle physics community, which made the development very efficient.”

By attracting major experiments with Canadian as well as international participation and diversified projects that go beyond astroparticle physics, SNOLAB is well positioned for the future, emphasizes Dr. Virtue. “Our lab is now completely booked, and we are looking for opportunities to fund an expansion.”

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