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S.D. School of Mines & Technology
501 E. St. Joseph Street
Suite 102, O'Harra Building
Rapid City, SD  57701

(605) 394-2493

Research@Mines - by Subject
SURF

Powerful Bugs: Harnessing the Electric Eels of the Microbial World

“We’re studying the electric eels of the microbial world,” says Navanietha Krishnaraj, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Chemical and Biological Engineering department at SD Mines. - Photo Credit NOAA

Researchers at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology are studying ways to harness electricity generated by a unique set of microbes. 

“We’re studying the electric eels of the microbial world,” says Navanietha Krishnaraj, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Chemical and Biological Engineering department at SD Mines.

Researchers, such as Venkata Gadhamshetty, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at SD Mines, and his team including Namita Shrestha, Ph.D., are working on maximizing the efficiency of what’s known as bioelectrochemical systems. By understanding the right combination of microbes and materials it’s possible to harness clean energy for widespread use in various applications.

Possible outcomes of this research include new ways to generate electricity and treat solid waste during NASA space missions, the ability for a wastewater treatment plants to help generate electricity while turning effluent into clean water, a new way to clean saline wastewater generated in oil drilling operations, and better ways to turn food waste, like tomatoes and corn stover into elec...

Last Edited 8/30/2018 01:53:43 PM [Comments (0)]

Ballooning in the Shadow of the Moon

This image, courtesy of the South Dakota Solar Eclipse Balloon Team, shows the moon's shadow crossing the Nebraska Panhandle during the Great American Eclipse of 2017.

At 10:35 a.m. on August 21, 2017, in a field in front of a small Nebraska Panhandle farmhouse, a team consisting of SD Mines students, Black Hills area high school students, teachers and community members, meticulously followed a set of steps they had practiced many times before. Payloads were carefully secured, batteries checked, and scientific instruments turned on and tested. Soon, helium was coursing through a hose from tanks in the back of a pickup truck into an eight-foot-tall balloon laid out on the soft grass.

Above the desolate cornfields and sandhills of northwestern Nebraska the moon was starting its path across the sun–the arc of its shadow racing across the country toward this team. The Great American Eclipse was underway.

The South Dakota Solar Eclipse Balloon Team had been working for two years to prepare for this one sliver in time. Their goal—to launch this balloon at the exact moment to loft the payload to an altitude of about 100,000 feet, under the moon’s shadow, during two minutes of totality. On board were video cameras, a radiation detector, GPS, and other scientific experiments. This project aimed to capture images and data from the eclipse. The radiation detector would help measure the flux of cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere as the moon obscured the sun. The video cameras would capture the circle of the moon’s shadow on the earth. The team designed and built some of ...

Last Edited 5/17/2018 03:53:34 PM [Comments (0)]

SD Mines Helps Keep Two of the World’s Most Sensitive Dark Matter Experiments Clean

Radon reduction researchers pictured with the machine they designed are (from left to right) SD Mines physics graduate student Joseph Street, Richard Schnee, Ph.D., along with lab technicians David Molash and Christine Hjelmfelt.

South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is helping to ensure highly sensitive underground dark matter experiments are free of radon that could contaminate the results. SD Mines researchers are building a radon mitigation system at SNOLAB in Canada and at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, S.D.

The team, led by Richard Schnee, Ph.D., professor and head of the physics department at SD Mines, is building machines that filter out radon particles to produce ultra-pure air needed for the SuperCDMS experiment in SNOLAB and for the LZ (LUX-ZEPLIN) experiment in SURF.  The team is also helping ensure the parts used to build the experiments are relatively free of radon.

“Our detectors need very low levels of radon,” Schnee says. While the radon levels at the 4850 Level at SURF are safe for humans, they are too high for sensitive experiments like LZ, which go deep underground to escape cosmic radiation, Schnee explains. “We will take regular air from the facility and the systems will reduce the levels by 1,000 times or more.”

The system in SURF will be installed in the...

Last Edited 5/17/2018 03:54:35 PM [Comments (0)]

As Good As Gold

Rajesh Sani, associate professor of chemical and applied biological sciences at SD Mines, is pictured third from left.

In 2009 the former Homestake Mine was a dark, wet, and difficult place to conduct research. The deepest mine in North America began filling with water following its closure in 2002. As momentum built to turn the mine into an underground lab, pumps were installed to dewater the flooded shafts and tunnels. As the water receded, Rajesh Sani, PhD, was among the first researchers to enter the deeper sections of the mine.

“We went 5,000 feet deep, for sampling which took a great deal of effort,” says Sani, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at SD Mines.

Sani and his team were not deep underground hunting for precious minerals, they were looking for bugs. “The microbes we found were as good as gold,” he says with a smile.

Extremophiles are microorganisms that live in harsh environments. They have learned to thrive in places like the geothermal vents of the mid-Atlantic rift, the frigid waters of Antarctic lakes, or the veins of hot water found in tiny cracks deep underground. Extremophiles have evolved unique characteristics that make them very useful to scientists like Sani. Twelve years after that first trip, the former Homestake Mine is now the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF). Today, the microbes discovered inside SURF are at the center of exciting new research at SD Mines.

The BuG ReMeDEE

In 201...

Last Edited 4/26/2018 01:34:38 PM [Comments (0)]

Growing Copper Deep Underground: SD Mines Plays Integral Role in Successful MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR Experiment

Much of the experiment’s copper is processed underground to remove both natural radioactivity (such as thorium and uranium) and radioactivity generated above ground when cosmic rays strike the copper. Electroforming relies on an electroplating process that over several years forms the world’s purest copper stock. Ultrapure copper is dissolved in acid and electrolytically forms a centimeter-thick plate around a cylindrical stainless-steel mandrel. Any radioactive impurities are left behind in the acid. Here collaborator Cabot-Ann Christofferson of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology measures the thickness of copper pulled from an electroforming bath. Credit: Sanford Underground Research Facility; photographer Adam Gomez

The collaborators working on the MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR have published a study in the journal Physical Review Letters showing the success of the experiment housed in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF). The success of the MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR opens the door for the next phase of the experiment and sets the stage for a breakthrough in the fundamental understanding of matter in the universe. 

The experiment, led by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, involves 129 researchers from 27 institutions and six nations. The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology was an integral part in facilitating the underground laboratory space at SURF and helped lead the effort to build the ultra-pure components needed to construct a successful experiment. 

“The goal was to demonstrate the feasibility and capability to build a larger one-ton experiment,”  says Cabot-Ann Christofferson, the Liaison and a Task Leader within the  MAJORANA Collaboration at the Sanford Underground Lab and an...

Last Edited 6/28/2018 01:05:55 PM [Comments (0)]

SD Mines Researchers Hope to Sanford Lab Extremophiles to Create Low-Cost Renewable and Biodegradable Polymers

Courtney Carlson, a senior majoring in Chemical Engineering at SD Mines (right) and researcher Navanietha Krishnaraj Rathinam, Ph.D., (left) work in the Chemical and Biological Engineering and Chemistry (CBEC) building at SD Mines. Carlson and Krishnaraj Rathinam are using benchtop reactors in the lab to perform CNAM-Bio research that seeks to optimize and scale-up the manufacturing of biopolymers from lignocellulosic biomass using extremophiles. The center is a scanning electron microscope image of the bacteria the research team are studying.

A team of researchers with the Composite and Nanocomposite Advanced Manufacturing – Biomaterials Center (CNAM), led by David Salem, Ph.D., at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology are using microbes that were discovered deep underground in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in an attempt to make low-cost plastics that are renewable and biodegradable.

“Most commercial polymers, or plastics are petroleum based which is a non-renewable resource,” says Salem. The team is working to find ways to mass manufacture low-cost plant based plastics and composites. “A problem with bio-based polymers is they are expensive, and one goal of this center is to use genetically engineered microbes to help reduce the cost of manufacturing these kinds of plastics,” says Salem. “Another goal is to engineer the properties of the biopolymers and biocomposites to serve a wide range of commercial applications.”

There is a huge potential for new green-based manufacturing jobs in the area if the center succeeds in developing mass manufacturing techniques for turning plants into low-cost bio-based polymers.

“The top ten petroleum based polymers make up about a $500-billion global market,” says Salem. “These biopolymers potentially can cover the whole range of properties of those.”

A group, led by Rajesh Sani, Ph.D., from SD Mines’ Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, have isolated th...

Last Edited 6/20/2017 10:39:43 AM [Comments (0)]

SD Mines Researchers Help Ensure a Clean Signal in Next-Gen Dark Matter Detector at Sanford Lab

Lab technician Rashyll Leonard completes connections for collecting radon from the LUX experiment underground at SURF during decommissioning, September 20, 2016. Photo credit: Dr. Eric Miller.

The LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) dark matter detector in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead reached a major milestone this week. U.S. Department of Energy approval for the final design of the LZ experiment launches the construction phase and pushes the project toward the completion goal of April, 2020. Next-gen dark matter detectors have become sensitive enough that researchers around the world are now more confidently racing to be the first to directly observe the existence of dark matter particles. LZ is in direct competition with two projects in Italy and China. Researchers at South Dakota School of Mines &Technology are playing a key role in the detection and removal of radon from the sensitive equipment to ensure LZ has the cleanest signal possible.

"Physicists at Mines are playing a role in one of the most exciting physics experiments in the world,” said SD Mines President Heather Wilson.

LZ is being placed almost a mile underground to reduce the impact of cosmic rays that can hide the potential dark matter signal. But other types of background radiation and contamination can also produce false signals and hurt the effort to detect dark matter. Researchers must painstakingly measure all components of LZ for naturally occurring radiation. One challenge is the removal of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that could interfere with dark ...

Last Edited 6/13/2017 10:34:47 AM [Comments (0)]

New Grant Funds Researched-Based Economic Development

Dr. Juergen Reichenbacher outside his clean room laboratory on campus.

A new state grant and matching commitments totaling $342,424 are bolstering research-based economic development at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

The funds, including a $200,000 grant from the Board of Regents, are being used to buy scientific instruments for existing projects. Among them are two research endeavors at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in nearby Lead. A third project expands on the university’s current success to commercialize a biomass liquefaction process.

Over the past decade, SD Mines has been supporting efforts at SURF to build a strong expertise and infrastructure toward synthesis of high-value organic products from biomass. 

Details on the three projects impacted by this new funding:

  • Development of a novel system reducing the radon concentration underground at the Sanford Lab, enabling future experiments in this facility. This project is being led by Dr. Richard Schnee, associate professor in the Department of Physics.
  • Development of two low-background detectors that will provide new capabilities important not only for planned underground physics experiments but also for industrial applications, especially in semiconductor and nuclear security sectors. This project is being led by Dr. Juergen Reichenbacher, assistant professor in the Department of Physics.
  • Selective liquefaction of lignin and biomass wa...
Last Edited 2/3/2017 09:23:18 AM [Comments (0)]

Strieder Leads Sanford Lab CASPAR Team in Unlocking Secrets of the Universe

Mines physicist Dr. Frank Strieder is the principal investigator on the CASPAR experiment at the Sanford Underground Research Facility.

In a cavern buried beneath a mile of rock at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, a School of Mines team has spent the last year assembling an accelerator that could alter the scientific world with quiet bursts of energy.

The Compact Accelerator System Performing Astrophysical Research (CASPAR) experiment hopes to understand the origins of the universe by mimicking nuclear fusion in stars, studying the smallest scale possible to understand the largest scale possible.

Led by South Dakota Mines’ Dr. Frank Strieder of the Department of Physics, the team of scientists includes researchers from the University of Notre Dame and the Colorado School of Mines, as well as seven Mines students—three doctoral students and four undergraduates. Strieder designed the 45-foot-long accelerator and spent a year purchasing or machining parts and then assembling them.

Data collection is expected to begin within the next month.

The idea behind the experiment is to generate the type of energy inside a star, allowing scientists to understand how stars were formed and where they are in their lifespan, which could lead to other discoveries about life in the universe.

One kilometer away inside another cavity of the sprawling deep underground laboratory, Ray Davis observed for the first time 50 years ago that neutrinos came from the sun. Davis earned the Nobel Prize for his discovery.

“We know bas...

Last Edited 11/3/2016 03:09:08 PM [Comments (0)]

Sani’s Study of Extremophiles Welcomes International Collaborators, Gains Recognition

Dr. Rajesh Sani and his students have been collecting samples from the deep biosphere of the Sanford Underground Research Facility nearly a mile below ground.

Dr. Rajesh Sani’s research on how microorganisms can survive in extreme environments could lead to the conversion of solid wastes into bioenergy and the development of efficient, cost-effective green technologies.

In recent months his ongoing efforts have welcomed international collaborators from India and have been highlighted in SCI’s international Chemistry & Industry (C&I) Magazine.

The School of Mines and Sani, of the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, are currently hosting researchers from India for a year-long collaborative study on extremophiles such as those found a mile below the earth’s surface at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF). The Sanford Lab in nearby Lead is located in the former Homestake Gold Mine and has 370 miles of tunnels. Of those tunnels, just 12 miles are maintained to house world-class laboratories where international dark matter and neutrino experiments are being conducted.

Over the past decade Sani’s group has been looking for thermophiles that can naturally degrade and ferment cellulose and xylan, a polysaccharide found in plant cell walls.

The extremophiles isolated from SURF by Sani’s group will also be used as test subjects in a new NASA study.

Last Edited 11/3/2016 02:50:26 PM [Comments (0)]