Sanford Underground Research facility
September 26, 2016
A next-generation dark matter detector that will be at least 100 times more sensitive than its predecessor, has cleared another approval milestone and is on schedule to begin its deep-underground hunt for theoretical particles known as WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles, in 2020.
TestStand-Prototype: Tomasz Biesiadzinski (left, SLAC) and Jeremy Mock (State University of New York/Berkeley Lab) install a miniversion of the future LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) dark matter detector at a test stand at SLAC. The white container is a prototype of the detector’s core, also known as a time projection chamber (TPC). For the dark matter hunt, LZ’s TPC will be filled with liquid xenon. (Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
LZ-TestStand: SLAC’s Thomas “TJ” Whitis at the test stand for the LZ experiment at SLAC. The TPC prototype is installed inside the cylinder on the left. (Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
LZ-KrRemoval: SLAC’s Christina Ignarra (left) and Wing To are working on a system to remove krypton from commercially available xenon. (Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
WIMPs are among the top prospects for explaining dark matter, the unseen stuff that we have observed only through gravitational effects.
Last month, LZ received an important U.S. Department of Energy approval (known as Critical Decision 2 and 3b) for the project’s overall scope, cost and schedule. The latest approval step sets in motion the build-out of major components and the preparation of its mile-deep lair at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, S.D.
The experiment is designed to tease out dark matter signals from within a chamber filled with 10 metric tons of purified liquid xenon, one of the rarest elements on Earth. The project is supported by a collaboration of more than 30 institutions and about 200 scientists worldwide.
“The nature of the dark matter, which comprises 85 percent of all matter in the universe, is one of the most perplexing mysteries in all of contemporary science,” said Harry Nelson, LZ spokesperson and a physics professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. “Just as science has elucidated the nature of familiar matter—from the periodic table of elements to subatomic particles, including the recently discovered Higgs boson—the LZ project will lead science in testing one of the most attractive hypotheses for the nature of the dark matter.”
LZ is named for the merger of two dark matter detection experiments: the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX) and the U.K.-based ZonEd Proportional scintillation in Liquid Nobel gases experiment (ZEPLIN). LUX, a smaller liquid xenon-based underground experiment at SURF will be dismantled to make way for the new project.
A cutaway rendering of the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) detector that will be installed nearly a mile deep near Lead, S.D. The central chamber will be filled with 10 metric tons of purified liquid xenon that produces flashes of light and electrical pulses in particle interactions. An array of detectors, known as photomultiplier tubes, at the top and bottom of the liquid xenon tank are designed to pick up these particle signals. (Credit: Matt Hoff/Berkeley Lab)
“Liquid Xenon has turned out to be a nearly magical substance for WIMP detection, as demonstrated by the sensitivities achieved by ZEPLIN and LUX,“ said Professor Henrique Araujo from Imperial College London, who leads the project in the U.K.
The SURF site shields the experiment from many particle types that are constantly showering down on the Earth’s surface and would obscure the signals LZ is seeking.
“Nobody looking for dark matter interactions with matter has so far convincingly seen anything, anywhere, which makes LZ more important than ever,” said Murdock “Gil” Gilchriese, LZ project director and Berkeley Lab physicist.
Dan McKinsey, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) faculty senior scientist and UC Berkeley Physics professor who is a part of the LZ collaboration, said, “A major reason for LZ is surprises: We’re really pushing way into the low-energy, low-background parameter space where no one has ever looked, and this is where surprises could await. That’s where new things get discovered. While we are looking for dark matter, we may see something else that has a rare interaction with matter at low energies.”
Some previous and planned experiments that also use liquid xenon as the medium for dark-matter detection are helping to set the stage for LZ.
Experiments seeking traces of dark matter have grown increasingly sensitive in a short time, Gilchriese said, noting, “It’s really like Moore’s law,” an observation about regular, exponential growth in computing power through the increasing concentration of transistors on a computer chip over time. “The technologies used in liquid xenon detectors have been demonstrated around the world.”
The entire supply of xenon for the project is already under contract, Gilchriese said, and the state of South Dakota aided in the purchase of this supply. Xenon gas, which is costly to produce, is used in lighting, medical imaging and anesthesia, space-vehicle propulsion systems, and the electronics industry.
Before the xenon is delivered in gas form in tanks to South Dakota, it will be purified at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
“Having focused on design and prototyping for some time now, it’s very exciting to be moving forward toward building the LZ detector and the production-scale purification systems that will process its xenon,” said Dan Akerib, who co-leads SLAC’s LZ team. “The goal is to limit contamination from another element, krypton, to just one-tenth of a part per trillion.”
Liquid xenon was selected because it can be ultra-purified, including the removal of most traces of radioactivity that could interfere with particle signals, and because it produces light and electrical pulses when it interacts with particles.
Engineers at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin’s Physical Sciences Laboratory are working together to make sure that none of that expensive xenon is lost should there be a power outage or extended down time.
“The xenon in LZ is precious both scientifically and financially, so it’s very important that we have the same amount of xenon at the end of the experiment as at the beginning,” said Hugh Lippincott of Fermilab, the current physics coordinator of the collaboration. “We’re excited to be part of this next generation of direct dark matter experiments.”
LZ is designed so that a dark matter particle would produce a prompt flash of light followed by a second flash of light when the electrons produced in the liquid xenon chamber drift to its top. The light pulses, picked up by a series of about 500 light-amplifying tubes lining the massive tank, will carry the telltale fingerprint of the particles that created them.
The tubes are currently being manufactured by a company in Japan and will be tested by collaboration members. Progress is also continuing on the construction of ultrapure titanium sheets in Italy that will be formed, fitted and welded together to create a double-walled vessel that will hold the liquid xenon.
In recent weeks, researchers used LUX, which will soon be dismantled, as a test bed for prototype LZ electronics. They tested new approaches in monitoring and measuring particle signals, which will help them in fine-tuning the LZ detector.
“We have learned a ton of stuff from LUX,” McKinsey said. “We are mixing in some different forms of elements that we can remove really well or that decay to stable isotopes—to measure all of the responses of the liquid xenon detector. We are making sure our errors are small when we actually do the LZ experiment.”
Other work is focused on precisely measuring the slightest contribution to background noise in the detector posed by all of the components that will surround the liquid xenon, to help predict what the detector will see once it’s turned on. A high-voltage system is being tested at Berkeley Lab that will generate an electric field within the detector to guide the flow of electrons produced in particle interactions to the top of the liquid xenon chamber.
“At SLAC, we’ve set up an entire platform where the LZ collaboration is testing detector prototypes and is performing all kinds of system tests,” said Tom Shutt, co-leader of the national lab’s LZ group and LUX co-founder.
In the next year there will be lot of work at SURF to disassemble LUX and prepare the underground site for LZ assembly and installation. Much of the onsite assembly for LZ will take place in 2018-2019 at SURF.
Kevin Lesko, a senior physicist at Berkeley Lab and head of Berkeley Lab’s SURF operations office, said that LZ will benefit from previous work at the SURF site to prepare for new and larger experiments. “Back in 2009, we sized the water tank and other infrastructure to support next-generation experiments,” he said.
Strong scientific teams from the U.K., Portugal, Russia, and South Korea are making crucial physical and intellectual contributions to the LZ project. For more information about the LZ collaboration, visit: http://lz.lbl.gov/collaboration/.
LZ is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy Physics, the U.K. Science & Technology Facilities Council, the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, and the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA), which developed the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF). SURF is operated by the SDSTA under a contract with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy Physics.
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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 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.
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.