Ambitious underground science project taking shape in Tamil Nadu

India`s ambitious and largest ever Rs 1,500 crore science research project to study atmospheric neutrinos in a deep underground cave is gradually taking shape at a sleepy village near Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

Chennai: India`s ambitious and largest ever Rs 1,500 crore science research project to study atmospheric neutrinos in a deep underground cave is gradually taking shape at a sleepy village near Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

Christened `India-based Neutrino Observatory` by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), it will study atmospheric neutrinos 1,300 metres below ground and is expected to provide precise measurement of neutrino mixing parameters.

"While approval of the full project proposal may take a few more months, we have been allocated Rs 83 crore to start various pre-project activities at the site," INO spokesman Naba Kumar Mondal told PTI.

Pre-project activities include developing land for construction of a small prototype detector at Madurai before going ahead with the full detector construction, widening and strengthening the eight km road leading to the INO site at Pottipuram village, he said.

The proposed INO 1,300 metres below ground comprises two underground laboratory caverns with a rock cover of more than 1000 metre all around to house detectors and control equipment, for which a two km access tunnel would be driven under a mountain, according to the INO website.

"The surface facilities near the portal will consist of a laboratory and some housing for the scientists, engineers and operating staff. There will be no other tunnels and hence no disturbance on top or the sides of the mountain. The only entrance to the underground cavern will be at the bottom of the mountain," it said.

The Tamil Nadu government also assisted the project by giving 66 acres of land free of cost at Pottipuram to build all surface facilities, including laboratory, office building, guest houses and staff accommodation.

The site in West Bodi Hills near Madurai was not DAE`s first choice for the project. Though it chose Singara near Nilgris, the Environment Ministry had objected to the idea, since it was within an elephant corridor.

The quality of rock, low seismic activity and location of being away from wildlife were major factors in settling for the present site.

The total project cost is estimated at Rs 1,500 crore to cover many components -- construction of the underground laboratory and surface facility at Pottipuram, the Inter Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics at Madurai, the 50 kton magnetised neutrino detector and salary of scientists and engineers that will be employed.

"Since we are waiting for budget approval, work pertaining to underground work such as digging has not started yet," Mondal said.

The project will house all indigenously developed equipment for the experiment.

"All equipment required are being developed indigenously at various laboratories like TIFR, BARC, Variable Energy Cyclotron Center and IIT Madras. After their development, the knowhow will be transfered to Indian Industry for mass production," Mondal said.

The state government has also given another 30 acres at Madurai for Rs 17 crore to DAE to construct India`s first dedicated Centre for High Energy Physics.

"Though work is on to construct the centre, we have already started operation of the centre at Madurai from a rented building," Mondal said.

On the project`s importance, he said it would address a key question in neutrino physics- neutrino mass ordering.

"Currently, INO is the only detector in the world having potential to provide answer for this fundamental question."

It would also help India pick up the correct theory beyond standard model of particle physics. The special environment provided by the underground laboratory will also be useful to conduct experiments in rock mechanics, geology and biology, the senior scientist with Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) said.

"INO should also put India back on the world map of underground science, a position held by us in the second half of the 20th century when Indian scientists had the privilege of working at Kolar Gold Field mines," Mondal said.

More than 30 research institutions across India like Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad and some IITs are coordinating with INO for the project.

On possible opposition from environmentalists, Mondal said, "There is no real opposition from anyone for this project. We have received all environment and forest clearance from the Environment Ministry, as well as government of Tamil Nadu."

"It may be possible that few people may still have some misconception about the project, but I am sure they will soon realise the benefit this project will bring, especially for aspiring science students from the state as well as from the whole country. This project will make India scientifically rich," he said.