Researchers in the Texas A&M University Department of Physics and Astronomy have been awarded a three-year, $1.27 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in support of their world-leading detector research and development work that continues to play a key role in the SuperCDMS dark matter search experiment and other major projects at the forefront of new physics.
Texas A&M physicist and 2019 Presidential Impact Fellow Rupak Mahapatra serves as principal investigator for the project, which also involves fellow Texas A&M physicists David Toback and Nader Mirabolfathi. Theirs is one of 71 projects from 50 institutions selected last month for funding as part of a $93 million DOE investment aimed at kick-starting new discoveries at the frontiers of particle physics through exploration in basic energy science.
“Particle physics plays a role in many major innovations of the 21st century, and to keep our competitive edge America must invest in the scientists and engineers that are advancing basic physical science today to create the breakthroughs of tomorrow,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The Department of Energy is proud to be the nation’s leading funder of physical sciences, leading to life-changing medicines, technologies and solutions that create a better future.”
For the better part of the past two decades, Mahapatra and the SuperCDMS program at Texas A&M have been instrumental in positioning SuperCDMS as a world leader in in the search for the elusive weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) believed to make up dark matter and therefore nearly a quarter of the universe. Since 2003, he has been a principal investigator with SuperCDMS and the affiliated SuperCDMS SNOLAB experiment, which uses highly sophisticated detector technology and advanced analysis techniques to enable cryogenically cooled (almost absolute zero temperature at -460 degrees Fahrenheit) germanium and silicon targets to detect rare nuclear recoil events — the possible energy-based footprints of dark matter.
“A dark matter particle passes through us every second, yet we do not feel it due to their extremely rare interaction with ordinary matter,” said Mahapatra, a professor at Texas A&M and member of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy since 2008. “In collaboration with Stanford, our group is leading the detector development for next-generation dark matter detectors utilizing cryogenically cooled semiconductor detectors with transition edge sensors.”
What starts in Mahapatra’s laboratory as bare germanium and silicon crystals is painstakingly transformed through a series of high-performance, semiconductor technology-driven steps. First, the crystals are characterized based on purity and then polished to detector-grade specifications. Next, they are enhanced with a thin layer of film, onto which their Texas A&M-developed transition edge sensors are photolithographically patterned. Finally, the film is cryogenically tested using liquid helium and then carefully packaged for transport for additional scientific testing and payload preparation.
Powered by five concurrent DOE awards in the past few years, Mahapatra and his group continue to lead the design and development of cutting-edge detector technologies capable of dramatically improving the scientific potential of dark matter searches as well as those for beyond Standard Model (BSM) physics using coherent scattering of neutrinos. One such example, the Mitchell Institute Neutrino Experiment at Reactor (MINER), is housed at the Texas A&M Nuclear Science Center. Another example is the new SPICE/HeRALD collaboration led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that received $2 million in funding last year through the DOE New Initiatives in Dark Matter (NIDM) — half a million of which was allocated to Mahapatra’s group.
“Most of these new detector development efforts focus on low-threshold detection that holds the key to discoveries in low-mass dark matter searches and reactor-based coherent neutrino scattering searches,” Mahapatra said. “Our SuperCDMS group is in good position to contribute to many exciting aspects of those efforts while also providing excellent training for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. We also are playing leadership roles in the SNOLAB data acquisition, thanks to excellent computing infrastructure that has demonstrated its capabilities in Monte Carlo simulations and data processing.”
The SuperCDMS collaboration’s work is funded by the DOE along with the National Science Foundation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
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