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Scientists working to detect a phenomenon known as "neutrino-less double beta decay" work in the clean-room machine shop on the Davis Campus a mile underground at the old Homestake gold mine in Lead. (Katie Adkins/For The Daily Republic)1 / 3
About 70 former gold miners have worked for the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority maintaining and renovating the former Homestake mine for use as a science research lab. (Katie Adkins/For the Republic)2 / 3
John Wilkerson is the lead scientist on the Majorana experiment at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead. (Katie Adkins/For The Daily Republic)3 / 3

LEAD -- Researchers working in the old Homestake gold mine could be on the verge of discovering dark matter, a scientific event that would put South Dakota on the tips of many tongues around the world.

In their quest for such a breakthrough discovery, scientists ride a rough "cage" elevator daily deep below the Black Hills, just as gold miners did for decades.

The search these days is for subatomic particles, not gold, and the mere presence of the researchers is as noteworthy for locals as the hoped-for dark matter discovery would be.

When the owners of the Homestake gold mine announced on Sept. 11, 2000, that they would shutter the 125-year-old Black Hills icon, prominent physicists proposed an underground science lab before the month was out.

The idea might have seemed a preposterous flight of mad scientist fancy, or perhaps a desperate ploy by Lead city fathers to salvage the city's economy. But one man, scientist Ray Davis, had become revered for his neutrino experiment conducted underground during decades when Homestake miners paid far more attention to drilling and blasting than they did to Davis and his tank filled with dry-cleaning fluid.

Davis was on the verge of winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 for detecting neutrinos, a key event in shifting humanity's fundamental understanding of the universe.

"Ray Davis had made Homestake famous (in scientific circles). The Ray Davis experiment was very well known," said Bill Harlan, communications director at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. As a reporter at the Rapid City Journal, Harlan covered the efforts to create a science lab at Homestake.

"In those heady early days, there was some thought that Homestake would just hand over the keys to the lab. It didn't quite work out that way," Harlan said.

Former state lawmaker Jerry Apa, R-Lead, recalls broad support for the idea and few detractors.

"Because of the configuration of the mine, the density of the rock, they knew this was the ideal place to do some serious research into neutrinos and dark matter," Apa said, referring to the shield the rock provides from cosmic radiation and other particles.

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., recalls plenty of skepticism but also a desperation to rebound from the Homestake closure.

"There was such a yearning to find some suitable alternative use for the mine. The only thing lacking were cheerleaders when we organized events to talk about it," Daschle said. "People liked the scifi feel it gave and few could really describe what the lab was going to do."

Consensus formed around the idea that Homestake should become a new national laboratory.

The initial excitement deteriorated into tense relations among political leaders, scientists and officials of Barrick Gold Corp., which owned Homestake.

By the time South Dakotans elected Mike Rounds governor in late 2002, the idea of turning the hard rock tunnels of Homestake into a world-class science facility was being quietly declared a lost cause.

"It was dead in the water until Gov. Rounds came in and hit the restart button," Apa said.

Rounds coaxed Barrick back to the negotiating table, but one incident highlights how badly trust had eroded among key players. Sometime during the summer of 2003, a Rapid City attorney called Rounds to tell him that University of Pennsylvania physicist Alfred Mann, a colleague of Ray Davis, wanted to secure legal counsel before chaining himself to the gates of the Homestake mine.

Mann had decided to protest the mine's water pumps being turned off.

"I flew out to Rapid City to meet with him, about 8:30 that night," Rounds recalled in a recent interview with The Daily Republic. "I spent about four hours with Dr. Mann and convinced him he did not have to go handcuff himself to the front gates."

Rounds told Mann that for several months, Barrick had been negotiating in good faith to turn the mine over to the state.

"He was adamant he could not stand by and allow it to be flooded," Rounds said. "I convinced him that we had every intention of trying to find a way to acquire the facilities and not have it be lost to science."

By 2004, the state had created the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, a key to convincing Barrick that the state would indeed be on the hook for any environmental liability that might arise.

"We provided them with clear evidence that we would behave in a businesslike manner," Rounds said. "We created the authority, which is arms' length from the state. It could be sued and it could hold an asset. It was then separate from the legislative process."

Rounds also secured an insurance policy for the property.

The state Legislature OK'd $14.3 million for the project that year and another $19.9 million in 2005. All told, the state has committed $44 million to the facility, although $12 million of that remains in restricted accounts.

'I'll give you the $50 million'

For the new governor, the quest was about shoring up the state's economy, not chasing tiny particles.

"No. 1 on my list, we were losing young people who were leaving the state," Rounds said. "We had to find ways to create job opportunities, and we had to find ways where people who wanted to do research didn't have to leave the state.

"We needed research facilities. We needed a gem, some sparkle, that showed an interest in being on the cutting edge. We had a natural advantage at that mine location. It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up."

It took Rounds until 2006 to convince Barrick to donate the vast underground network of tunnels and caverns beneath the Black Hills to the state authority.

Key to launching the science was a $70 million donation from South Dakota credit card baron and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, who told Rounds he would give the money during a quiet conversation in Pierre.

"I told him I thought it would cost $50 million to get down to 4,850," said Rounds, referring to the level of the mine 4,850 feet below ground. "He said, 'Let's build it.' I said, 'I need the $50 million.' He said, 'I'll give you the $50 million.'

"I remember thinking, 'I'm sure glad I'm sitting down, because I would fall down if I wasn't.' At that point, the mine starts to click."

Knowing that Sanford had an interest in children's causes, Rounds pressed Sanford for another $20 million for educational outreach.

The property was renamed the Sanford Underground Research Facility at Homestake, and the Sanford Center for Science Education was created above ground. Today, schoolchildren from across the state and scientists from around the world convene at the Sanford center for myriad activities.

"It never would have happened without Denny Sanford," Rounds said.

Former state lawmaker Mel Olson, D-Mitchell, said lawmakers from across the state were enthusiastic about the project.

"We were just tickled pink to have something go in there, not to have a big hole in the ground," Olson said. "We have activity going on there and people are getting paid money."

Experiments under way

Even with support throughout the state and millions of dollars in hand, struggles continued in dealing with the National Science Foundation. Ultimately, the National Science Foundation stepped back from an administrative role, and the Department of Energy now is the federal agency engaged in lab operations.

The DOE works with Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, which works with the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority to operate the lab. DOE began funding daily operations at the Sanford lab in fiscal year 2012.

As the federal agencies grappled with how to handle the lab, Rounds did not wait. He sought frequent counsel from Alfred Mann, the particle physicist who had planned to handcuff himself to the Homestake gates, about how to navigate the culture of science organizations within the federal government.

"He was adamant that we get down there and get started," Rounds said. "He told me, 'Once you have your experiments started, then they will grow and others will come.' "

Fast-forward to today, and there are two experiments under way underground.

The Large Underground Xenon detector bears similarities to Ray Davis' neutrino detector in that it employs a large tank filled with fluid in search of tiny particles that scientists believe exist but haven't yet detected. Technically, LUX is searching for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPs, particles that have mass but rarely interact with other particles.

"LUX is equipped to pick up the wispy sparkles of light that would be emitted if a WIMP collided with the nucleus of a xenon atom," reads a Sanford lab pamphlet. "Discovery would finally reveal the face of dark matter."

Dark matter and dark energy are mind-bending topics, but some scientists contend that dark matter makes up about 25 percent of the universe and dark energy about 70 percent. The things we all can see and touch make up less than 5 percent, they say.

The LUX detector was installed underground during the summer of 2012 and this year the search for dark matter will begin.

Continuing in neutrino research, scientists are working on the Majorana Demonstrator Experiment to determine whether neutrinos and anti-neutrinos might be the same particle.

"If they are, the neutrinos produced by 'double beta decay' will be self-annihilating and none will be detected," reads a Sanford lab pamphlet.

This experiment, installed in 2012, employs the world's purest copper and could help scientists better understand the most essential elements of the universe.

"One of the things we don't understand is why we're actually here, why there is more matter than anti-matter," said John Wilkerson, the lead scientist on the Majorana experiment.

Wilkerson and his team are looking for "neutrino-less double beta decay," what he calls "the rarest decay ever observed."

Waiting in the wings is the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment, a plan to shoot a beam of neutrinos from Fermilab in Chicago through the Earth to detectors at the Sanford lab. It is hoped that the journey will provide scientists with information about how and why neutrinos change "flavors" as they travel, "shedding light on the most mysterious and abundant particles known to science." (Scientists joke that the beam will travel directly beneath the Corn Palace.)

In addition, the Department of Energy is considering the Sanford facility for the Dual Ion Accelerators for Nuclear Astrophysics (DIANA) experiment.

Father miner, son scientist

As the scientific community takes more and more of an interest in the Sanford lab, Mike Rounds' vision of homegrown South Dakotans conducting scientific research has come to fruition in at least one person.

Mark Hanhardt, of Sturgis, became enthralled with physics in middle school and believed he would leave South Dakota as his father mined for gold at Homestake.

"I knew physics was my calling," Hanhardt said. "There is an underlying poetry to the universe that physics unlocks. ... I chose astrophysics, about as far away from the underground as possible."

His interest in dark matter, though, has led him to where his father, Jim, labored and still works as one of about 70 former miners who have assisted the science authority with managing the vast underground property.

Harnhardt had his heart set on attending Princeton, but all the talk of an underground science lab at Homestake changed that.

"I could have gone (to Princeton), but just as I graduated from high school they started talking about a deep underground lab," he said. "I went to the School of Mines (in Rapid City)."

Harnhardt earned the first master's degree in physics ever awarded by a South Dakota school. The new degree was launched as part of the complementary educational efforts pushed by the Rounds administration. In December, the South Dakota Board of Regents finalized plans to offer the state's first doctoral degree in physics.

Harnhardt, the lab's first hire from Mines' master's program, is an employee of the science authority and works primarily with the LUX scientists.

"This is absolutely a dream, being on the bleeding edge of science," he said. "My mom's ecstatic."

'A long way to go'

Beyond the human benefit of keeping South Dakotans at home, the lab has attracted many millions more than the state's $44 million investment:

• $91.5 million in National Science Foundation funding;

• The $70 million donation from T. Denny Sanford;

• $57 million from the U.S. Department of Energy;

• $21 million to pay for the Majorana experiment, plus $4 million per year in operating expenditures;

• $10 million from a federal Housing and Urban Development grant;

• $1.5 million for the LUX experiment, plus $2 million per year in operating expenditures;

• And $10.5 million in interest earned.

Combine that with the more than 120 good-paying jobs in Lead, the educational outreach and the strong potential for growth, and you've got a respectable economic engine.

After concluding two terms in office in 2010 and now preparing for a 2014 U.S. Senate race, Rounds remains steeped in all things Homestake/Sanford. He easily rattles off experiment names, scientists' names and technical details.

"This is one of the few places in the U.S. where we can have scientists working on dark matter and neutrino research," he said, noting that until now, the leading minds gravitated exclusively to facilities in Switzerland and Italy. Other similar facilities have popped up in Canada, Japan and China.

The mine's miles and miles of tunnels provide infinitely more room to grow than other research labs.

"One of the advantages to being here at Homestake is the ease of entrance and ease of access down into those locations," he said. "There are huge opportunities."

He takes no small amount of pride in the fact that some students from those European facilities now travel to Lead to work underground.

"Those youngsters are now in South Dakota, and with a Ph.D. in physics now being offered in the state, we've got one more opportunity for these youngsters to stay in the state and do their research," he said. "It not only keeps our best and brightest here, but it's one more chance for corporate funding within our borders."

Rounds sees it all as the beginning.

"From where we began, we've come a long way. It's just that we've got a long way to go."