The future of physics: Professors develop new particle detector

By IAN LACK Reporter

Two South Dakota State University professors are assisting a research project to determine the design of a new particle detector on the cutting edge of particle physics.

Representatives for Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory, approached professors Stephen Gent and Greg Michna to perform research with a one-year, almost $50,000 grant. Chosen for their expertise in particle physics, they have been helping design a particle detector being constructed for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) in Lead.

Discoveries made in the experiment could have a beneficial impact with real-world applications, according to Robert McTaggart, SDSU’s representative on the DUNE institutional board. These could include new medical imaging, efficient battery capacity, fusion energy and nuclear detection.

“The real asset that we are also getting from this is that we are getting experience for researchers to be able to understand the importance of neutrinos in the future, even if we are unable to now,” McTaggart said.

This particle detector will be used to capture images of sub-atomic particles called neutrinos being beamed from the Fermilab proton accelerator in Illinois, about 800 miles away.

Neutrinos are one of the smallest sub-atomic particles in the universe. Although they were discovered in 1956, little is known about them or their purpose in the universe. What is known is that while they are close to nothing in mass, they are still able to be measured by detectors like the one being built.

The DUNE project is estimated to create an economic output of $952 million in South Dakota, according to the Sanford Underground Research Facility. Construction began July 21 and is expected to be completed within the next seven to eight years.

Gent said the time is due to the complexity of the particle detector being built.

“There are different arrays of wires, immersed in liquid argon, that are arranged in a way that can detect neutrinos in the detector,” Gent said. “So the neutrinos would interact with the liquid argon and be detected by the wires. As that liquid argon stays in there, it can collect impurities and so the designs that we’re working on allows us to follow those impurities.”

The main impurity the detector faces is water, which makes it harder for the researchers to detect the neutrinos. So, the detector is being designed to pump the liquid argon out, filter out the water, and pump it back in.

The location for the detector in Lead was chosen because of its physical distance from the Fermilab facility in Illinois. The distance provides an opportunity for researchers to amplify the neutrinos while reducing obstruction to it. It is being constructed from a former gold mine where 870,000 tons of rock will be excavated.

The entire team for the DUNE project consists of more than 1,000 scientists and engineers from more than 30 countries.

Aaron Propst, an SDSU mechanical engineering graduate student, assisted the duo in creating computer simulations. These simulations will help locate where to place the inlets and outlets to the filtration system should be placed within the detector.

“It’s been a really huge learning experience for me and I think for everyone involved in this,” Propst said. “I know I’m more prepared to help handle this research.”

The research team will continue to work on the project until their grant ends in September. After that, their work will be used to help design the particle detector in Lead.