From Sanford Underground Research Facility: “Enhancing the search”

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Sanford Underground levels

Erin Broberg

Photos by Matt Kapust

From Sanford Underground Research Facility

Changes in LUX’s design optimize LZ’s search for dark matter.


LUX cryostat

To increase the amount of xenon atoms in a given volume, scientists cool xenon gas to very low temperatures until it becomes liquid. To keep the experiment cold, it is housed in a double-walled titanium vessel to maintain the low temperature, a cryostat. The LUX cryostat held 380 kg of LXe.

The LUX cryostat held 380 kilograms of liquid xenon.

LZ cryostat

LZ will hold 10 tons of liquid xenon, over 26 times the volume previously contained by LUX. This increases the chances for a WIMP to collide with a xenon atom, causing a series of signatures to be detected.


Essential to the detection of WIMP signatures are two arrays of photomultiplier tubes (PMTs), housed at the top and bottom of the cryostat.

The arrays in LUX held a combined 122 PMTs, each with a two-inch diameter.


With a larger volume of xenon to monitor, researchers have designed larger PMT arrays. LZ will boast a total of 494 PMTs, three inches in diameter, in the top and bottom arrays.

To optimize both their detection and veto capabilities, researchers have included additional PMTs in the skin and dome structures of the detector.


“In addition to the size, we are improving every aspect of the experiment that we can,” Horn said.

To transport and store the xenon, LUX previously used eight compressed gas cylinders. LZ will use 200 of these cylinders stored in a newly outfitted room outside the laboratory underground.

More xenon means a larger, more complex circulation system. Previously, the pumps exchanged 25 liters of purified xenon gas per minute. The small pumps will be replaced with large compressors capable of circulating xenon efficiently. Now, that number will be closer to 200 liters per minute.

A xenon tower outside the water tank will allow xenon to be heated to its gaseous form, purified, then re-liquified before it is reintroduced into the detector again.

The signal readouts for all photomultipliers and sensors amount to over 1000 cables which will run out of the detector and into computer racks. Also, the voltages required to create the electric field over the increased detector size are significantly higher.

“Overall, there are far more challenges, more sub-systems and simply far more pieces to this experiment – all bigger and better than before”, said Horn.

Increasing veto detection

LUX relied on the water tank as a veto detector, helping researchers rule out extraneous signatures.

In addition to the water tank, LZ will improve veto detection by installing nine acrylic vessels around the cryostat, filled with a liquid scintillator and and monitored by larger PMTs (8-inch diameter) within the water tank. This system allows researchers to further reduce backgrounds by by observing interactions outside the detector.

In 2013, the Large Underground Xenon detector (LUX) at Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab) was named the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world. In the global search for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), a candidate for dark matter, LUX was preforming exceedingly well.

So why did the collaboration decommission LUX in 2016? And why are they building a larger detector—LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ)—in it’s place?

“The search for dark matter is a numbers’ game,” said Markus Horn, Sanford Lab research scientist and member of the LZ collaboration. “We’re waiting for a dark matter particle or weakly interacting massive particle (WIMP) to interact with the xenon atoms in the detector. The likelihood of such an interaction depends on how many xenon atoms we have.”

By sizing up the experiment, researchers increase their chances of witnessing rare WIMP interactions with a larger volume to hold xenon. Horn said that, while the size of the detector isn’t the only way researchers are enhancing the search, it’s a good starting point.

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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

LBNL LZ project will replace LUX at SURF [see below].

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.”