Friday, May 22, 2009

At the mine

I'm writing this entry from 6800 feet below ground. I am wearing a baby blue jumpsuit (pictures to come, hopefully), safety glasses, steel toed boots, a hair net and a hard hat. At some point, my mom commented that hearing about working in the mine might be more interesting than posts on physics, and so I am going to give the human interest piece a try.

I have been working up in Sudbury, Ontario for the past two and a half weeks at the underground lab I mentioned in the overview posts (linked from the right of this blog). What is it like? Well, it's pretty cool, I have to admit. Life at the lab is in many ways defined by the cage schedule of the mine, as I'll explain. I get up before 7, because I have to catch the 7:30 cage underground. If I miss that cage, I'm pretty sure that I won't be able to go under on that day. So, I'm up at 7 (I don't have to shower, as you'll soon see), drive to the mine, go to my locker. I take off the civvies, and put on a mining jumpsuit (lots of reflective tape), hardhat, glasses, wellington boots. I get my head lamp (there's a slot on the hard hat for the head lamp to slide into), tag in (the mine has a lot of safety rules, but the main one is the tag-in and tag-out system. If you go underground, you have to be tagged in, and then when you come back up you tag out. That way, when the company wants to do some blasting, they can make sure no one is underground. If you forget to tag out, or tag out the wrong person, they are not allowed to blast. People do get calls at 4 in the morning about being tagged in, you do not want to be the person who forgets) and wait for the cage. When it arrives, we all pile in. The cage is very cage-like. It's maybe 5 ft wide and 15 ft deep, made all of beat-up metal, and the miners and lab workers pile in in rows of 4. Sometimes, when it's full, we'll be squeezed all the way in, and I hear stories that "in the old days, we used to put 5 in a row." Then we drop. A couple of people will put their lights on at this point, otherwise we'd just be going down in the dark. We stop at a few places along the way for people to get off at various levels (if we stop too many times, that's known as a "milk run"), and then finally, we arrive at the 6800 ft level.

Next, we have to hike about 1.5 km down a drift. The drift is 10 ft wide maybe, with screen or "shotcrete" helping to support the walls. We'll hike half the way down, and then we call ahead to the lab where someone has advanced ahead of us with an air monitor (the modern version of a canary) to make sure it's safe to proceed. Sometimes there will be water on the ground to tramp through, and there's evidence of mining all over the place. Eventually we arrive at the lab. At this point, we take off our clothes, and take the garbage bags off anything we've brought down with us. We shower (there's a built in shower every morning, which is nice when you're getting up so early [at least for a grad student]) and put on a clean jumpsuit and hair net, etc. The entire lab is a "clean room," which means that considerable effort has gone into making sure that all the dirt and dust picked up on the walk through the drift is cleaned off before we enter the lab. Hence the cleaning precautions.

So now we're in the lab. The walls are all whitewashed (but not straight, since it's a cave, essentially), and most of the ventilation and wiring is visible. It looks like the set of a sci-fi movie. So off I go to my experiment where I do the day's work (fiddling with high voltage power supplies, making sure the detector stays cold, that there is enough liquid nitrogen, doing various radioactive source calibrations, etc). Then, 45 minutes before the cage up time (again, there's a fixed schedule. I can't just come in and out whenever I want), we go through the reverse process, take off the lab clothes, put back on the mining gear, hike back out through the drift, etc. And you'd better make that cage.

So up we go back to the surface (there's a signal system for the cage, and you always know that when they signal 2 short pulses twice, the next stop is the surface), take off the mining gear, shower again (I love that the day is bracketed by showers), and voila, life underground at the lab.

It's a good thing I'm done this little summary, because a liquid nitrogen fill just completed so today's tasks are all done and the detector will survive the weekend, and I have to start cleaning up to catch the next cage out (I'm taking the early cage today).


  1. I LOVED this one of course. Questions:as you go up and down with the miners, do they talk to you about your work or their work? You said you see "signs of mining." What exactly? Do you get to see what they are bringing up out of the mine? Do they have good days and bad days? Do you? When was your mine built - or requisitioned for physicists? Is it rented from the mine-owner? Are there other mines with physicists down there? How and what do you eat down there? Are there nice loos and do you have to undress to use them?
    Any women down there? Loved the photos. Good blog, Hugh.

  2. Not too much fraternization with the miners, they're mostly interested in their own lives, naturally. And signs of mining consist of equipment around, the screen on the walls, old bottles, we pass the "refuge station" on the way which looks like an old wooden hut except underground. Mine has been active for 40 years or so, lab was built about 20 years ago. There is some sort of agreement with Vale Inco, the mining company. There are other underground labs. Bring your own food underground (sandwiches for me). In the lab there are lovely bathrooms. There are women. Lots of questions there, mum, short answers, I know.

  3. Dear Hugh's Mom,
    The cage ride up and down is not really conducive to engaging in conversations about what goes on in SNOLAB and vice versa. The cage ride might only be 3.5 minutes and everyone is just happy to be heading back to surface after a long day underground.
    There are many underground mining vehicles that are encountered on a regular basis that gives an indication of the scale of the mining projects. For example, an 8 yard scooptram is ~ 15' high and fills the entire drift. A scooptram is normally used for ore haulage and dumping, and also to remove muck from freshly blasted drifts. Creighton Mine has been in production since 1901; SNOLAB pays for its own water, electricity and cage rides.
    When they were working on the same level as SNOLAB you can often see little bits of ore that have been dropped - you should ask Hugh for a sample! Creighton Mine has an enormous amount of Ni-Cu-PGE sulphide mineralization.
    There are actually quite a few mines in the world that are being used by physicists to study the cosmos; seems a bit counter-intuitive but it works!
    There are very nice bathrooms underground - you don't have to undress to use them because they are located in the "clean" parts of the lab! (everyone has already showered by this point).
    There are almost as many women underground as there are men; if you count the entire support staff, construction crew and all the students!
    Thanks for the blog Hugh!