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NMSU researchers to use massive particle detector to study neutrinos

New Mexico State University’s High-Energy Nuclear Physics group will be among scientists performing experiments using the 30-ton MicroBooNE particle detector, which was moved into place Monday at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.

The fully assembled MicroBooNE detector, before being transported to its new home at Fermilab's Liquid-Argon Test Facility. The detector is now in the path of Fermilab's intense neutrino beam and will begin taking data later this year. (Photo courtesy Fermilab)
Large tank being hoisted in the air
The MicroBooNE detector is at rest in its new home, Fermilab's Liquid-Argon Test Facility. The detector is now in the path of Fermilab's intense neutrino beam and will begin taking data later this year. (Photo courtesy Fermilab)

The MicroBooNE detector – a 40-foot-long cylindrical metal tank designed to detect particles called neutrinos – was carefully transported by truck across the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab site, from the warehouse building it was constructed in to the experimental hall three miles away.

“The technology is very interesting; a tank of liquid argon the size of a school bus, will contain a network of wires that will record the interactions that neutrinos will have with the argon nuclei,” said Stephen Pate, physics professor who, along with physics associate professor Vassili Papavassiliou, leads the NMSU group in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The MicroBooNE scientific collaboration consists of more than 100 physicists from 23 institutions from the U.S. and three other countries. This machine will allow scientists to further study the properties of neutrinos, particles that may hold the key to understanding many unexplained mysteries of the universe.

“We are very excited to be a part of the MicroBooNE Experiment at Fermilab,”said Pate. “MicroBooNE is a big step forward both from a physics point of view, and from a technological perspective.

“We will use a beam of neutrinos from the Fermilab accelerator complex to explore the nature of neutrinos themselves, and also use the neutrinos to explore the internal structure of protons and neutrons and the nuclei in which they reside.”

The MicroBooNE detector has been under construction for nearly two years. The tank contains a 32-foot-long “time projection chamber,” equipped with 8,256 delicate gilded wires, which took the MicroBooNE team two months to attach by hand.

“The liquid-argon detector of MicroBooNE, operating at a temperature of about minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit represents the latest in the technology of such target/detector systems and it is the largest of this type in the Western Hemisphere,” Papavassiliou said.

The MicroBooNE detector’s 170 tons of liquid argon will release charged particles when neutrinos interact with it. The detector’s three layers of wires will then capture pictures of these interactions at different points in time and send that information to the experiment’s computers.

Using one of the most sophisticated processing programs ever designed for a neutrino experiment, the computers will sift through the thousands of interactions that will occur every day and create stunning 3-D images of the most interesting ones.

“Neutrinos are very light, almost massless, elementary particles, which only interact extremely rarely with matter,” said Papavassiliou. “Hundreds of billions of neutrinos, created in the sun in the nuclear processes that keep it shining, pass through one's fingernail (and every other square centimeter of the body) every second and continue through the earth and out the other side unimpeded and unnoticed. And the sun is only one source of neutrinos in the universe; there are many others, terrestrial and in space.”

Papavassiliou explained BooNE stands for "Booster Neutrino Experiment" where the Booster is one of the proton accelerators in the Fermilab accelerator complex. The proton beam from the Booster is used to produce an intense neutrino beam that is used in experiments. MicroBooNE is the latest in a series of "BooNE" experiments and “Micro” refers to its relative size.

“The construction of this detector is itself a step towards much larger liquid argon detectors that will be used in the next two decades in other experiments at Fermilab, in which NMSU will also play a role,” Pate said.

NMSU has a long history of collaboration with Fermilab and is a member of the Universities Research Association, a consortium of 86 research universities from around the world.

The NMSU team also includes Tia Miceli a post-doctoral research associate; graduate student Katherine Woodruff; and two undergraduate physics students Alistair McLean and Eric Henderson. The DOE is funding the NMSU group. The DOE and the National Science Foundation are funding the experiment.

To watch a video of this project visit http://1.usa.gov/1ruIIrd.