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Impact and History

Science impact

Sanford Lab's dedication to science, research and development and engineering, as well as its innovative approach to education, make it a world-leading science facility.
Researcher working in a glovebox.

The Sanford Underground Research Facility supports world-leading research in particle and nuclear physics and other science disciplines. While still a gold mine, the facility hosted Ray Davis's solar neutrino experiment, which  shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics. His work is a model for other experiments looking to understand the nature of the universe.

The Facility's depth, rock stability and history make it ideal for sensitive experiments that need to escape cosmic rays. The impacts on science can be seen worldwide. 

P5 report emblem

Science with national priority

In 2014, the Department of Energy's High Energy Physics committee prioritized physics experiments, giving neutrino and dark matter projects high-priority. Sanford Lab houses two experiments named in the P-5 report: LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) and LBNF/DUNE. 

LZ, a second-generation dark matter experiment, will continue the search for weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), while LBNF/DUNE, the largest mega-science project ever on U.S. soil, will study the properties of neutrinos. 

World dots with to illustrate global reach

International investment and cooperation

Sanford Lab hosts a variety of research projects in many disciplines. Researchers from around the globe use the facility to learn more about our universe, life underground and the unique geology of the region.

The site also allows scientists to share and foster growth within the science community and encourages cooperation between many countries and institutions. For example, for the first time in its history, CERN is investing in an experiment outside of the European Union with its $90 million commitment to LBNF/DUNE. 


Lab volumes compared by continent

Global footprint

Competition for underground laboratory space is fierce. With the completion of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) construction, Sanford Lab will host  approximately 25 percent of the total volume of underground laboratory space in the world.

The sheer amount of space (7,700 acres underground) and existing infrastructure make the site highly attractive for future experiments in a variety of disciplines.

Lab depths by continent

Global footprint depth

Sanford Lab is the deepest underground lab in the U.S. at 1,490 meters. The average rock overburden is approximately 4300 meters water equivalent for existing laboratories on the 4850 Level. Space in operating laboratories has a strong track record of meeting experiment needs.

Surface footprint

The local footprint of the facility includes 186 acres on the surface. Facilities at both the Yates and Ross surface campuses offer researchers administrative support, office space, communications and education and public outreach. The Waste Water Treatment Plant handles and processes waste materials and a warehouse for shipping and receiving.

Underground footprint

Of the 370 total miles of underground space, Sanford Lab maintains approximately 12 for science at various levels, including the 300, 800, 1700, 2000, 4100, and 4850 levels. The Davis Campus on the 4850 Level is a world-class laboratory space that houses experiment for neutrinoless double-beta decay and dark matter.

Building laboratories deep underground at Sanford Lab created new opportunities for higher education in South Dakota. In 2012, the Board of Regents authorized a joint Ph.D. physics program at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City and the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Since then, dozens of students have participated in the program and worked on experiments at Sanford Lab. In fact, of the 24 ongoing research projects, 18 include students and faculty from universities across South Dakota. 

The Yates Shaft headframe building

Science access

The Yates Shaft, which was raised in 1939 and descends 5,000 feet, is the primary access point for scientists and others who work underground at Sanford Lab. The hoists convey equipment and materials used to build and maintain experiments, enhance infrastructure and excavate caverns.

Researchers often have similar requirements for space, power, data connections and other utilities and share common infrastructure throughout the facility.

The Ross Shaft Headframe.

Two shafts for safety and redundancy

Construction on the Ross Shaft began in 1932, with the first skip of ore hoisted in 1934. The steel shaft reaches 5,000 feet and was in operation until 2002 when the Homestake Mine closed. While the Yates Shaft is used for primary access, both the Ross and Yates shafts are conduits for power, optical fiber and ventilation. 

Refurbishment of the Ross Shaft infrastructure is underway and includes the replacement of the steel and ground support. Modernizing the Ross Shaft is critical to carving out the space needed to house LNBF/DUNE. Nearly 850,000 tons of rock will be hoisted through the Ross during excavation for the experiment. 

A rock core sample

Geology of the site has been well-characterized

Geotechnical properties of some rock formations at Sanford Lab are ideal for large excavations for laboratory space. Before excavating, engineers study the character of the rock using new and existing core drilled from throughout the former Homestake mine.

  • 7 main rock formations and rhyolite intrusives
  • 27,870 drill holes throughout the facility
  • 39,760 boxes of core from 2,688 drill holes
  • Sanford Lab maintains a database with more than 58,000 entries representing 1,740 drill holes
Biologists take samples from an underground pool.

Biology opportunities

Deep below the surface of the Earth, a multitude of microscopic organisms thrive without the benefit sunlight or other necessary amenities we find on the surface. The temperature, humidity, different rock formations, access to water and seepage from various sources create unique opportunities for scientists to study extreme forms of life.

Research teams from the NASA Astrobiology Institute,the Desert Research Institute, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Black Hills State University and other institutions from around the world, conduct research on several levels of the facility hoping to understand how these life forms survive in such extreme conditions. 

Engineers discussing a project


The Sanford Underground Research Facility offers a variety of environments in which engineers can test real-world applications and new technologies. And the rich history of the Homestake Mine, which includes a vast archive of core samples, allows engineers to better understand how to excavate caverns for new experiments.