Researchers face engineering puzzle

Illustration by Ana Kova, Courtesy

Excerpted from the Symmetrymagazine article of the same title, published 7 March 2017.

Nearly a mile below the surface of Lead, South Dakota, scientists are preparing for a physics experiment that will probe one of the deepest questions of the universe: Why is there more matter than antimatter?

“We have to transfer almost 70,000 tons of liquid argon underground,” says David Montanari, a Fermilab engineer in charge of the experiment’s cryogenics. “And at this point we have two options: We can either transfer it as a liquid or we can transfer it as a gas.”

Either way, this move will be easier said than done.

Liquid or gas?

The argon will arrive at the lab in liquid form, carried inside of 20-ton tanker trucks. Montanari says the collaboration initially assumed that it would be easier to transport the argon down in its liquid form—until they ran into several speed bumps.

Transporting liquid vertically is very different from transporting it horizontally for one important reason: pressure. The bottom of a mile-tall pipe full of liquid argon would have a pressure of about 3000 pounds per square inch—equivalent to 200 times the pressure at sea level. According to Montanari, to keep these dangerous pressures from occurring, multiple de-pressurizing stations would have to be installed throughout the pipe.

Even with these depressurizing stations, safety would still be a concern. While argon is non-toxic, if released into the air it can reduce access to oxygen, much like carbon monoxide does in a fire. In the event of a leak, pressurized liquid argon would spill out and could potentially break its vacuum-sealed pipe, expanding rapidly to fill the mine as a gas. One liter of liquid argon would become about 800 liters of argon gas, or four bathtubs’ worth.

Even without a leak, perhaps the most important challenge in transporting liquid argon is preventing it from evaporating into a gas along the way, according to Montanari.

To remain a liquid, argon is kept below a brisk temperature of minus 180 degrees Celsius (minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit).

“You need a vacuum-insulated pipe that is a mile long inside a mine shaft,” Montanari says. “Not exactly the most comfortable place to install a vacuum-insulated pipe.”

To avoid these problems, the cryogenics team made the decision to send the argon down as gas instead.

Routing the pipes containing liquid argon through a large bath of water will warm it up enough to turn it into gas, which will be able to travel down through a standard pipe. Re-condensers located underground act as massive air conditioners will then cool the gas until becomes a liquid again.

“The big advantage is we no longer have vacuum insulated pipe,” Montanari says. “It is just straight piece of pipe.”

Argon gas poses much less of a safety hazard because it is about 1000 times less dense than liquid argon. High pressures would be unlikely to build up and necessitate depressurizing stations, and if a leak occurred, it would not expand as much and cause the same kind of oxygen deficiency.

The process of filling the detectors with argon will take place in four stages that will take almost two years, Montanari says. This is due to the amount of available cooling power for re-condensing the argon underground. There is also a limit to the amount of argon produced in the US every year, of which only so much can be acquired by the collaboration and transported to the site at a time.