Scientists based 1,200ft below the Teesside coast are leading the world in the quest to unravel one of the great mysteries of the universe - the secret of Dark Matter.
Government advisers believe so much in the research that more than £3m has been ploughed into a project, seen as far-reaching as the splitting of the atom.
The high-powered team is based underground in the unlikely setting of Europe's deepest mine at Boulby near Loftus.
Project spokesman Dr Peter Edwards, of the University of Durham, said: "Finding out what dark matter is made of could lead to countless discoveries and ground-breaking applications to help people worldwide."
Science Minister Lord Sainsbury yesterday officially launched the project's major quest by descending the 1,200ft to open a hi-tech refurbished laboratory.
The Boulby Underground Laboratory for Dark Matter Research is searching for evidence of the matter which scientists believe may make up at least 90pc of the universe.
Now a purpose-built control centre and cutting edge underground laboratories are the focus of efforts to prove the elusive existence of dark matter particles once and for all.
The Boulby potash mine was chosen more than 12 years ago for fledgling dark matter experiments because its depth means it cuts out most of the cosmic radiation which would otherwise confuse ultra-sensitive equipment.
Lord Sainsbury said: "This is a world class facility and the first detection of dark matter here would be a world coup for Boulby.
"The forthcoming years promise to be an exciting time for those scientists searching for dark matter and I am pleased the facilities we now have at Boulby will allow our British team to remain at the forefront of this research.
"The laboratory at Boulby is a fine example of the cutting edge equipment and facilities being built with money from the DTI's Joint Infrastructure Fund and its successor, the Science Research Investment Fund."
He said the scheme's funding will continue until around 2007, by which time there is a reasonable chance that the world-beating proof of dark matter will have been obtained at the Potash Mine.
Cleveland Potash spokesman Chris Gibson said: "We are delighted and proud that they have now secured funding to take their research to a higher plane. We wish them every success in their scheme to put Britain at the forefront of astrophysics research."
Boulby Mine is a deep working salt and potash mine run by Cleveland Potash and is deep enough to shelter the experiment from cosmic rays and there is low natural radioactivity due to the purity of the salt rock on which it is situated.
At the heart of the matter
Dark matter is non-luminous matter, that cannot be directly detected by observing any form of electromagnetic radiation (light), but whose existence is suggested because of the effects of its gravity on the rotation rate of galaxies and the presence of clusters of galaxies, according to Astronomy Today.
Astronomers and cosmologists know that dark matter exists but as yet do not know what it is composed of, or how much of it there actually is.
There are many candidates for dark matter, including undetected brown dwarf stars, white dwarf stars, black holes, or neutrinos with mass (a neutrino is a fundamental nuclear particle that is electrically neutral and of much smaller mass, if any at all, than an electron).
Other candidates include exotic subatomic particles, such as WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) or MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects).