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Sudbury astrophysics research to benefit from a $63M grant

Federal money for Queen's University to help partner universities and institutions
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Sudbury's SNOLAB will benefit from a $63.7-million federal grant to Queen's University that will support the creation of the Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre. File photo

Laurentian University's earth sciences and mineral exploration faculty weren't the only researchers at the institution to benefit from the federal government's Canada First Research Excellence Fund earlier in the week.

The $900-million fund also granted $63.7 million to Queen's University to support the creation of the Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre over a seven-year period.

While Kingston is about a six-hour drive from Sudbury, the two cities are closely linked in the area of astrophysics. 

Art McDonald, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for his role as director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory – and the breakthrough discovery that subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass – is also the Patricia Gray Chair in Particle Astrophysics at Queen's University.

Queen's is sharing the spoils of its grant with seven partner universities – including Laurentian – and five partner organizations,  including Sudbury's SNOLAB.

“It's great news for us and it's great news for the physics community in Canada,” SNOLAB director Nigel Smith told Sudbury.com.

Smith said Queen's new Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre will primarily be a “virtual institute” with faculty conducting research across the country.

And SNOLAB, due its depth and world-class facilities, will play a key role in that research.

The $63.7-million grant will support 41 new positions for researchers, engineers, designers and technicians. In addition, positions for approximately 18 postdoctoral fellows and 40 graduate students will be created on an annual basis. 

Smith said Laurentian will receive around $4 million from the grant to support its share of local researchers and experiments. 

One experiment that should benefit from the added research capacity is SNO+, the ambitious follow-up to the Nobel Prize-winning Sudbury Neutrino Observatory.

“I think this really ensures we can do the things we need to do,” said Laurentian's Christine Kraus, the Canada Research Chair in Particle Astrophysics and one of the lead researchers with the SNO+ experiment.

With SNO+, Kraus and her colleagues hope to observe a theoretical process called neutrinoless double beta decay. The research that won McDonald the Nobel Prize demonstrated that neutrinos have mass. SNO+, if successful, would allow scienctists to measure that mass, to, in effect, weigh a neutrino.

Kraus said she and her colleagues expect to start collecting data – by observing reactions in purified water – in November. 

The SNO+ experiment alone involves around 140 researchers – counting undergraduate students and technical staff – from around the world. 

Whether SNO+ results in another Nobel Prize for Canadian physics research is an open question, but Smith said Art McDonald's Nobel Prize last year certainly helped Queen's and its partners secure new funding.