Boulby Underground Laboratory

Boulby Mine

Boulby Mine
(Credit: STFC)

Welcome to Boulby Underground Laboratory, the UK's deep underground science facility, located 1100m below ground in Boulby Mine on the North East coast of England.

Boulby is one of just a handful of facilities world-wide suitable for hosting ultra-low background and deep underground science projects. Boulby is a special place for science - 'a quiet place in the Universe' - where studies can be carried out almost entirely free of interference from natural background radiation.

Studies underway at Boulby range from the search for Dark Matter in the Universe, to studies of cosmic rays and climate, astrobiology and life in extreme environments, development of techniques for deep 3D geological monitoring and studies of radioactivity in the environment.

For more information visit the Boulby Underground Laboratory website.

 

The Boulby Underground Laboratory is one of just a handful of facilities world-wide suitable for hosting ultra-low background and deep underground science projects. Boulby is a special place for science - 'a Quiet Place in the Universe' - where studies can be carried out almost entirely free of interference from natural background radiation.

The Boulby laboratory is located at Boulby Mine, between Saltburn and Whitby on the North-East coast of England and on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors (link opens in a new window).

Boulby is a working potash, polyhalite and rock-salt mine operated by Cleveland Potash Ltd. At 1100m deep, it is the deepest mine in Great Britain.

There are a huge network of roadways and caverns underground at Boulby with over 1000kms of tunnel having been excavated since beginning of mining operations in 1968. The salt and potash seams are left over from the evaporation of an ancient sea (the Zechstein Sea) over 200 million years ago. The main roadways and long-lasting caverns are cut into the rock-salt layer. Within the salt caverns, UK scientists and engineers have built a series of laboratories. With over 1100m of rock overhead reducing cosmic rays by a factor 1 million - and with the surrounding rock salt being low in natural background radioactivity - the laboratories make an ideal site for ultra-low background and deep underground science projects.

The support facilities at Boulby include a dedicated surface building with staging / storage, workshop, health & safety, mess and office facilities. Underground there is over 1000m2 of laboratory floor space. The most recent laboratory space (the Palmer laboratory) has >750 m2 of clean-room floor space, with air conditioning / filtration, power, craning facilities, telephone and internet access, workshop & storage facilities etc. The mine operators Cleveland Potash Ltd provide additional essential support facilities.

For a number of years Boulby has hosted the UK’s Dark Matter search studies, operating some of the most sensitive detectors in the world to try to detect Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) the strongest candidate for the missing matter in the universe. Boulby continues to host Dark Matter search studies, currently with the DRIFT-II project, the world most sensitive directional dark matter detector.

Recently it has become clear that access and work-space in a deep underground environment is highly valuable in a broad range of science areas beyond astrophysics. This is very much in evidence at Boulby with a number of new studies underway or evolving including studies of cosmic rays and climate, astrobiology and life in extreme environments, development of techniques for deep 3D geological monitoring and various gamma spectroscopy studies of radioactivity in the environment. The Boulby Underground Science Facility is funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and operates in close partnership with the Boulby mine operating company Cleveland Potash Limited.

DRIFT is a low-pressure gas dark matter detector with direction-sensitivity for incident particles. In the search for Dark Matter a detector with direction-sensitivity is expected to provide the strongest signature in the case of a positive WIMP detection as well as enabling progress towards post-detection dark matter WIMP halo astronomy. DRIFT-II, the current DRIFT detector at Boulby, is the most sensitive directional dark matter in the world.

DRIFT-II is a 1m3 gas-filled Time Projection Chamber (TPC) using electronegative (CS2) gas to reduce diffusion giving maximum track reconstruction resolution. DRIFT can operate in either spin-dependent or spin-independent mode depending on the fill gas mixture used. DRIFT is both limit-setting and undergoing R&D with various studies of technique/system performance and optimisation underway.

Participating institutions:

  • Sheffield University
  • Edinburgh University
  • Occidental College
  • University of New Mexico
  • Colorado State University

SKY-ZERO is a Danish / UK project to better understand the role of cosmic rays in aerosol formation in the atmosphere. Aerosols are known to be important in climate models, but the mechanisms and variables behind their creation and growth are poorly understood.

This experiment looks at the effect of controlled levels of ionisation on aerosol growth in an instrumented steel chamber containing pure air and trace additives to simulate, as well as possible, typical Earth's atmospheres.

Operating the experiment at Boulby and within a purpose build lead and copper 'castle' allows the ion-induced nucleation mechanism to be studied at lower ionisation levels than ever before. Thus enabling the investigation of (and unambiguous discrimination between) ‘neutral’ and ‘ion-induced aerosol’ nucleation and growth mechanisms.

Participating institutions:

  • Danish National Space Institute
  • STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
  • Birmingham University
  • Manchester University
  • Oxford University

Studies are underway to explore the use of Muon Tomography for deep 3D geological surveying applications. Muons are highly penetrating charged particles that are produced by cosmic rays from space and bombard the Earths atmosphere. On the Earth’s surface about 1 muon passes through an area the size of your hand per second.

Deep underground muons are attenuated by many orders of magnitude but the muons that do penetrate can potentially be used to produce an ‘image’ of the structures above. The technique, ‘Muon Tomography’, is similar to CT scanning in medical imaging, but as muons are more penetrating than X-rays much larger and deeper structures can be imaged.

Muon tomography has already been successfully used to image deep structures such as the interior of volcanoes and pyramids. Work is now underway to explore the use of the technique for imaging even deeper structures, with possible applications in mining and in monitoring for deep sub-surface storage initiatives such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). With its existing deep underground science facility, its depth and ease of access to underground spaces of various depths Boulby is uniquely well suited to the development of muon tomography techniques and instrumentation.

Participating institutions:

  • STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
  • Durham University
  • Sheffield University
  • Bath University
  • NASA-JPL

The field of ‘astrobiology’ seeks to investigate the limits of life on the Earth, the possibility of life beyond Earth, to prepare for the eventual human exploration and settlement of space and to apply this work to environmental challenges on the Earth. Boulby Mine, with its unique geology and existing deep underground science facility infrastructure, offers potential to make key advances in these areas.

To facilitate Astrobiology at Boulby we are establishing the Boulby International Subsurface Astrobiology Laboratory (BISAL) connected to the current Palmer Lab. A rich programme of Astrobiology work is underway for BISAL including studies of life at depth and life in salt (both of significance to studies of life on Mars), studies of the effects of radiation (and lack of it) on life and the evolution of life. Boulby is also being used as a UK ‘Analogue’ site where exploration techniques and instrumentation for the exploration of other planetary bodies can be tested in remote & realistic conditions (MINAR - Mining and Analogue Research). The analogue programme, run by the UK Centre for Astrobiology, currently involves other organisations including NASA, Surrey Space Centre and DLR.

In addition to the usefulness in astrobiology it is anticipated that some of the instrumentation development work in the above will also be of relevance to industrial geological exploration needs, for example in mining, and effort will be made to explore and exploit these links when found.

Participating institutions:

  • STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
  • Edinburgh University

The technique of gamma spectrometry using high sensitivity germanium detectors enables researchers to measure and identify trace levels of radioactivity in samples - an important and useful capability in a variety of studies from material selection in 'rare-event physics' to numerous studies of the environment.

Boulby currently operates a 2kg ultra-low background germanium detector for gamma spectrometry. Operating such a system deep underground, free of interference from cosmic rays, enables improved sensitivities of orders of magnitude compared to that achieved in surface facilities allowing the very lowest levels of radioactivity to be measured.

Participating institutions:

  • STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
  • University College London
  • Royal Holloway University
  • Sheffield University
  • Edinburgh University
  • Glasgow University
  • The Scottish University Environmental Research Centre (SUERC)

Contacts

For all enquiries, please contact:

How to find us

Boulby Underground Science Facility
Boulby Mine
Loftus, Saltburn-by-the-Sea
Cleveland, TS13 4UZ

Tel: +44 (0)1287 646 300
Mob: +44 (0)781 5520 853

Download a map of where we are (link opens in a new window).

Outreach activities

We are keen to introduce schools, the general public and wider scientific community to the world of underground science and the specific projects supported by the Boulby facility.

Our scientists will give talks offsite and visits to the underground facilities are offered where time allows.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000