A major research project between the states of Illinois and Minnesota into particle physics is relying on the unique qualities of two metals ” iron and titanium as it seeks to better understand the balance of matter and anti matter in our universe. After losing funding a year ago, and facing probable closure, the project has been re-ignited with $143m of funding under the stimulus package. $40m is to go into the receptor facility at Nova in Minnesota and $103m into the neutrino generator and projector at Fermilab to the west of Chicago. Utilizing 5,500 tons of iron neutrinos generated at Fermilab are caught in an iron ore mine in Minnesota after traveling 500 miles through the earth in a straight line (the earth’s crust curves so a straight line between the two requires the beam of almost mass-less particles to travel through the earth). But with the funding, a new 15,000 ton receptor is being built comprising 385,000 cells of PVC plastic loaded with titanium dioxide and mineral oil. As the neutrinos pass through the cells they collide with the contents and can be tracked with optic fibers attached to each cell. Before homeowners in Wisconsin start checking their household insurance policies to ensure their foundations are covered against neutrino damage, this article in the Washington Post explains that billions of neutrinos pulse through us every day from the sun without us even being aware of them. Hence they can pass through 500 miles of rock without interference.
So much for the science what will it tell us about the universe? Well that is even less easy to understand. Broadly the idea is to better understand the behavior of these neutrinos and thereby why the universe was formed with more matter than anti-matter. Clear? No well you are not alone but no doubt there will be short term benefits for the local economies in both these locations in terms of investment and jobs and in the long term may be for the rest of mankind if understanding brings us as yet unseen technological developments. The example the Post gives is Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity which led to Minnesota farmers being able to plow straight rows of corn in the dark by using GPS. I’ll take their word for it.