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 Tracking the Elusive Neutrino

A delegation visits the MINOS project: (l-r) Professor Marvin Marshak, UM Senior Vice President Robert Jones, UM Vice President Tim Mulcahy, University of Minnesota President Robert H. Bruininks, UM Institute of Technology Associate Dean Mos Kaveh, UMD Graduate School Dean Tim Holst, Director of Federal Relations for the University Channing Riggs, and Assistant Professor of Physics Alec Habig
Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar said, “This project is part of a bold, visionary initiative which will have profound implications for our understanding of the structure of the universe.” .
Neutrinos are elementary particles that often travel close to the speed of light, lack an electric charge, are able to pass through ordinary matter almost undisturbed and are thus extremely difficult to detect. Neutrinos have a minuscule, but nonzero mass. Most neutrinos passing through the Earth emanate from the Sun, and more than 50 trillion solar electron neutrinos pass through the human body every second.

Neutrino Accelerator
The NOvA detector allows neutrinos to be “caught” inside modules made up of small boxes containg plastic tubing.

UMD physics professor Alec Habig
Adds a NOvA to his MINOS

Alec Habig is one of about 200 project collaborators from 30 institutions from around the world working on NOvA, a neutrino physics research program. The project has taken its first steps. It has broken ground and the construction is commencing on a neutrino detector laboratory at Ash River, Minn., about 100 miles from Duluth.

In addition to his teaching position at UMD, Habig has been contributing to the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) project located in the Tower-Soudan Mine in Northern Minnesota. In that project, he assists in the development of its detector control system. Both projects, MINOS and NOvA seek to better understand dark matter in the universe, and the relationship between matter and antimatter.

The U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab, and the University of Minnesota will build the neutrino detector and install it in the new laboratory. When the detector is completed, physicists will explore the mysterious behavior of neutrinos by examining their pulses. The pulses are sent straight through the earth from the main neutrino injector facility at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. to the NOvA detector facility in Minnesota. The neutrinos travel the 500 miles in less than three milliseconds.

Habig said although the research that is going to be conducted at the new site is basic information, it is still incredibly important. "We're finding the pieces of the larger puzzle of how the universe works," he said. "Some enterprising future scientist will be able to make use of our discoveries to assemble a really cool (more accurate) picture."

“We hope to find out fundamental things about the way the universe works,” he said, noting that research of this kind has proven beneficial in the past. “When Benjamin Franklin was playing around with a kite and lightning, he was the first to investigate electricity, which later led to the discovery of electrons. They turned out to be pretty handy things.”

Habig, with the help of undergraduate and graduate students from UMD, is already working on UMD’s contribution to the project by writing acquisition software. At the site many computers will act as memory cards. The beam of neutrinos will be sent from Fermilab to Minnesota at timed intervals. The neutrinos will be “caught” inside plastic tubing by 4.2 million gallons of scintillation fluid, a solution of mineral oil and pseudocumene.

Neutrinos are so small, they can’t be detected; but the particles they smash into, can be. The pseudocumene is a substance that reacts to particle activity with a flash of light. “The neutrinos sent from Illinois act like an invisible cue ball in a billiards game,” said Habig. "We can’t see the neutrino but we can see what it is hitting.”

The computers will store information and Habig’s software will help decode it. “We need to make sure we are saving the interesting and useful information coming from Fermilab, but also the less important background information,” Habig said.

Another task UMD took on was to conduct strain testing. "We stacked giant concrete blocks on top of assembled detector sections to see if they'd squash,"said Habig. "It was a really fun test. Next, again with mechanical engineering students, we'll make sure that the real device performs the same way as the tests and simulations."

The lead research university for the project is the University of Minnesota under professor Marvin Marshak, Institute of Technology, and William Miller, Soudan Underground Mine Laboratory. The expected timetable calls for project construction to be completed in 2011, the equipment to be installed by 2013, and the experiments will be conducted through at least 2019. The facility at Ash River will be constructed 40-feet into granite on a site owned by the University of Minnesota. It is the furthest possible U.S. location in the direct line of the neutrino beam from Fermilab.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided $40.1 million in funding for the construction project. Fermilab, which manages the project, will receive an additional $9.9 million in ARRA funding for purchasing key high-tech components from U.S. companies, allowing those firms to retain and hire workers. “Over the course of the project, over $278 million will be spent,” said Habig. “At UMD, our funding comes from educational grants from the National Science Foundation to cover my work and the work of the students.”

At the groundbreaking event for the facility, Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar said, “This project is part of a bold, visionary initiative which will have profound implications for our understanding of the structure of the universe.” NOvA is widely considered as the world’s most advanced neutrino experiment and UMD is honored to have a part.

Written by Cheryl Reitan with assistance from journalism student Donna O'Neill.


UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
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