From Sanford Underground Research Facility: “LZ gets an eye exam”

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From Sanford Underground Research Facility

January 18, 2019
Erin Broberg

Brown University graduate student Will Taylor attaches data collection cables to a section of the PMT array. Matthew Kapust

Lights out, windows darkened, doors closed. It’s not after hours at the Surface Assembly Lab (SAL), it’s just time for the first of LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) dark matter detector’s on-site eye exam.

LZ’s “eyes” are two massive arrays of photomultiplier tubes (PMTs), powerful light sensors that will detect any faint signals produced by dark matter particles when the experiment begins in 2020. The first of these arrays, which holds 241 PMTs, arrived at Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab) in December. Now, researchers are testing the PMTs for the bottom array to make sure they are still in working condition after being transported from Brown University, where they were assembled.

“These PMTs have already undergone rigorous testing, down to their individual components and this is the final test after transport to the site,” said Will Taylor, a graduate student at Brown University who has been working with the LZ collaboration since 2014.

Once testing is completed, the bottom PMT array will be placed in the inner cryostat. The same process will be followed for the top array. The inner cryostat will be filled with xenon, both gaseous and liquid, and placed in the outer cryostat. Then, the entire detector will be submerged in the 72,000-gallon water tank in the Davis Campus on the 4850 Level of Sanford Lab.

“As you can imagine,” Taylor said. “It will be impossible to change out a faulty PMT after the experiment is completely assembled. This is our last chance to ensure each PMT is working perfectly.”

While researchers do expect a few PMTs to “blink out” over LZ’s five to six year lifetime, only the best of the best will make it into the detector. So, just how do researchers transform the SAL into an optometrist’s office?

Royal treatment

First, the array is placed in a special enclosure called the PALACE (PMT Array Lifting And Cleanliness Enclosure). There, the PMTs are shielded from light and dust. This enclosure also allows researchers access to the PMTs through a rotating window and to connect data collection systems to different sections of PMTs at a time.

“We test by section, collecting data from 30 PMTs per day,” said Taylor. “Each individual PMT has a serial number and is tagged to its own data, so we know exactly what each PMT is ‘seeing.’”

Going dark

For the first test, researchers look at what is called the “dark rate” of each PMT. To perform this test, researchers seal up the PALACE, turn off the lights in the cleanroom and black out the windows. In this utter darkness, PMTs are monitored for “thermal noise.”

“At a normal temperature, particles vibrate around inside the PMTs. When this happens, it is possible for electrons to ‘jump off’ and produce a signal that PMTs will detect,” Taylor explained. While most of this “thermal noise” will vanish once the experiment is cooled to liquid xenon temperature (-148 °F), researchers want to ensure the PMT’s dark rate is at the lowest threshold possible before being installed in LZ.

“Typically, these false signals come from a single photoelectron,” Taylor said. “With the dark test, we can measure how many photoelectrons signals occur every second.”

How much is too much noise? While a bit of noise (100-1000 events per second) is tolerable; rates closer to 10,000 events per second would be far too high, resulting in too many random signals that could overshadow WIMP signals during the experiment.

“That’s why it is incredibly important to make sure each PMT has a low dark rate,” said Taylor.

Lighting it up

For the second test, called an “after-pulsing” test, researchers will flash a light, imperceptible to the human eye, at the PMTs. This test determines the health of each PMT’s internal vacuum. Why is this important?

When light from a reaction inside the detector hits a photocathode of a PMT, an electron will be emitted. This single electron will be pulled through the PMT, hitting dynodes. Each time the electron hits an electrode, more electrons are emitted. This process continues, amplifying the original signal, turning the original electron into many, many, many electrons.

“That’s how we get an electron signal strong enough to read out,” Taylor said. “For that to work, however, those electrons have to be able to bounce between those dynodes without interruption.”

To decrease particle “traffic,” each PMT has a vacuum. The vacuum ensures there are no gas particles present to interfere with the amplification process. If a vacuum is faulty, gas particles may get in the way and hit an electron. This would cause the gas particle to bounce away and set off a second pulse of electrons, amplifying a signal of its own.

“This is called an ‘after-pulse,’” Taylor said. “The after-pulse is indicative of how good the vacuum, and thus the PMT, really is.”

Rather than depriving the PMTs of light as they did during the dark test, researchers now createa signal of their own to measure the after-pulse. To do this, an LED is affixed to the inside of the PALACE.

“We flash the LED at a rate of 1 kilohertz for 30 seconds. That’s a total of 30,000 flashes of the LED,” Taylor said. While that might sound like a lot of light, it’s actually not even perceptible to the human eye. “Each flash lasts 10 nanoseconds and produces only 50-100 photons—so the human eye can’t detect it.”

It is enough, however, for the PMT to detect it with a sizable initial pulse. Because researchers know exactly when the initial pulse was created, they can align their data to see when after-pulses occur and measure their strength.

“This helps us see how healthy the vacuum is and determine if the PMT is fit for LZ,” Taylor said.

20/20 vision

After a week of testing, researchers have announced the bottom array has 20/20 vision.

“Accepting the first of the two PMT arrays onsite, is one of many milestones toward the assembly and installation of the LZ experiment,” said Markus Horn, research support scientist at Sanford Lab and a member of the LZ collaboration. “While the detector assembly progresses at the Surface Lab, underground the installation of the xenon gas and Liquid Nitrogen cooling system begins. That would be the heart and the lung of LZ. But that’s another story!”

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About us.
The Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, advances our understanding of the universe by providing laboratory space deep underground, where sensitive physics experiments can be shielded from cosmic radiation. Researchers at the Sanford Lab explore some of the most challenging questions facing 21st century physics, such as the origin of matter, the nature of dark matter and the properties of neutrinos. The facility also hosts experiments in other disciplines—including geology, biology and engineering.

The Sanford Lab is located at the former Homestake gold mine, which was a physics landmark long before being converted into a dedicated science facility. Nuclear chemist Ray Davis earned a share of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002 for a solar neutrino experiment he installed 4,850 feet underground in the mine.

Homestake closed in 2003, but the company donated the property to South Dakota in 2006 for use as an underground laboratory. That same year, philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $70 million to the project. The South Dakota Legislature also created the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority to operate the lab. The state Legislature has committed more than $40 million in state funds to the project, and South Dakota also obtained a $10 million Community Development Block Grant to help rehabilitate the facility.

In 2007, after the National Science Foundation named Homestake as the preferred site for a proposed national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA) began reopening the former gold mine.

In December 2010, the National Science Board decided not to fund further design of DUSEL. However, in 2011 the Department of Energy, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agreed to support ongoing science operations at Sanford Lab, while investigating how to use the underground research facility for other longer-term experiments. The SDSTA, which owns Sanford Lab, continues to operate the facility under that agreement with Berkeley Lab.

The first two major physics experiments at the Sanford Lab are 4,850 feet underground in an area called the Davis Campus, named for the late Ray Davis. The Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment is housed in the same cavern excavated for Ray Davis’s experiment in the 1960s.
LUX/Dark matter experiment at SURFLUX/Dark matter experiment at SURF

In October 2013, after an initial run of 80 days, LUX was determined to be the most sensitive detector yet to search for dark matter—a mysterious, yet-to-be-detected substance thought to be the most prevalent matter in the universe. The Majorana Demonstrator experiment, also on the 4850 Level, is searching for a rare phenomenon called “neutrinoless double-beta decay” that could reveal whether subatomic particles called neutrinos can be their own antiparticle. Detection of neutrinoless double-beta decay could help determine why matter prevailed over antimatter. The Majorana Demonstrator experiment is adjacent to the original Davis cavern.

LUX’s mission was to scour the universe for WIMPs, vetoing all other signatures. It would continue to do just that for another three years before it was decommissioned in 2016.

In the midst of the excitement over first results, the LUX collaboration was already casting its gaze forward. Planning for a next-generation dark matter experiment at Sanford Lab was already under way. Named LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ), the next-generation experiment would increase the sensitivity of LUX 100 times.

SLAC physicist Tom Shutt, a previous co-spokesperson for LUX, said one goal of the experiment was to figure out how to build an even larger detector.
“LZ will be a thousand times more sensitive than the LUX detector,” Shutt said. “It will just begin to see an irreducible background of neutrinos that may ultimately set the limit to our ability to measure dark matter.”
We celebrate five years of LUX, and look into the steps being taken toward the much larger and far more sensitive experiment.

Another major experiment, the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE)—a collaboration with Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and Sanford Lab, is in the preliminary design stages. The project got a major boost last year when Congress approved and the president signed an Omnibus Appropriations bill that will fund LBNE operations through FY 2014. Called the “next frontier of particle physics,” LBNE will follow neutrinos as they travel 800 miles through the earth, from FermiLab in Batavia, Ill., to Sanford Lab.

Fermilab LBNE

U Washington Majorana Demonstrator Experiment at SURF

The MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR will contain 40 kg of germanium; up to 30 kg will be enriched to 86% in 76Ge. The DEMONSTRATOR will be deployed deep underground in an ultra-low-background shielded environment in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, SD. The goal of the DEMONSTRATOR is to determine whether a future 1-tonne experiment can achieve a background goal of one count per tonne-year in a 4-keV region of interest around the 76Ge 0νββ Q-value at 2039 keV. MAJORANA plans to collaborate with GERDA for a future tonne-scale 76Ge 0νββ search.

LBNL LZ project at SURF, Lead, SD, USA


CASPAR is a low-energy particle accelerator that allows researchers to study processes that take place inside collapsing stars.

The scientists are using space in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, South Dakota, to work on a project called the Compact Accelerator System for Performing Astrophysical Research (CASPAR). CASPAR uses a low-energy particle accelerator that will allow researchers to mimic nuclear fusion reactions in stars. If successful, their findings could help complete our picture of how the elements in our universe are built. “Nuclear astrophysics is about what goes on inside the star, not outside of it,” said Dan Robertson, a Notre Dame assistant research professor of astrophysics working on CASPAR. “It is not observational, but experimental. The idea is to reproduce the stellar environment, to reproduce the reactions within a star.”