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Silhouettes of Professor Elisabetta Barberio and Dr Madeleine Zurowski in the dark tunnels of the Stawell Gold Mine, located one kilometre underground. They wear protective helmets and head torches.

Digging deep to shed light on dark matter

The existence of dark matter has eluded scientists for decades and understanding its nature will radically change how we perceive the universe. Located one kilometre underground in the Stawell Gold Mine,
the first dark matter laboratory in the southern hemisphere is joining the global quest to understand the nature of dark matter and help solve one of science’s great unanswered questions.

Despite decades of research, the existence of dark matter particles remains theoretical. But scientists believe that the way the universe behaves indicates that something must be there.


“Currently, we can only really observe about five per cent of the whole universe,” said University of Melbourne physicist and Director of the Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics Professor Elisabetta Barberio.

“The rest is partly made of dark matter – invisible fundamental particles that make up the majority of matter, have no electric charge, don’t produce light and don’t interact very much with anything we can see.”

The Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory (SUPL) is the only underground physics lab in the southern hemisphere and its aim is to answer one of the fundamental questions about the universe:

Does dark matter exist?

“Dark matter research needs to happen this deep underground to cut out the cosmic ‘noise’ and radiation,” said Professor Barberio. With Stage 1 completed in August 2022, the lab is now hosting the experiment known as SABRE South.

The research is being carried out in collaboration with partners from the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso in Italy, who claim to have detected dark matter in a laboratory that sits inside a mountain as part of the DAMA/LIBRA project.

The SUPL lab in the southern hemisphere will therefore be critical for replicating and verifying the results of the Italian tests and ruling out any seasonal variations. The project highlights the University of Melbourne’s commitment to driving deep discovery, working closely with local and global partners to advance the frontiers of human knowledge.

The project is supported by the Australian and Victorian governments, each providing $5 million in funding for the building of the laboratory, and a $35 million grant from the Australian Research Council for development of a Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics.

The laboratory is a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, ANSTO, the Australian National University, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Adelaide, with ongoing support provided by Stawell Gold Mine.

For Dr Madeleine Zurowski, who completed her PhD in 2022 and has worked on experiments to observe dark matter over the past seven years, the opportunity to contribute to breakthrough research of this kind is one of the most fascinating and fundamental pursuits for a physicist.

Referencing the classic example of the World Wide Web and the role the Large Hadron Collider played in its discovery, Dr Zurowski points to the importance of such research.

“Even though the questions we’re trying to answer might be really abstract and theoretical, a lot of the technological advances we achieve are the result of people doing this kind of wacky, outside-the-box thinking.”

Working closely with SUPL’s partner organisations, as well as its Italian counterpart, SUPL now sits at the centre of dark matter research globally, and possesses the tools and location to lead in the quest to find dark matter and unlock this hitherto hidden secret of the universe.

For Professor Barberio and Dr Zurowski, bold research is essential if scientists are to address the great unanswered questions and, in their estimation, the boldest research is often only made possible through collaboration.

“Proving the existence of dark matter will not just be one of the biggest discoveries this century. It will be one of the biggest discoveries ever.”

Banner image: Lead researcher Professor Elisabetta Barberio and Dr Madeleine Zurowski (pictured left to right) one kilometre underground in the Stawell Gold Mine. Image: David Maurice Smith

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