A rare decay could help scientists answer universal questions


Most of us are familiar with the dark matter experiment taking place in the deep science lab in lead, but few are familiar with the Sanford Underground Lab’s newest project — the Majorana Demonstrator Experiment.

Deep underground, scientists are in search of Neutrino-less Double-Beta Decay, a rare process that may be the key to understanding of the evolution of the universe. Detecting this rare decay requires an ultra clean and radiation-free lab, 4,850 feet underground.

“It’s much cleaner than an operating room, its much, much cleaner than say your office,” said Steve Elliot, scientist at Los Alamos National Lab.

The Majorana Demonstrator Experiment is the first of its kind. The sterile and quiet environment is crucial because the rare events scientists are looking for could be hidden by even the slightest background radiation. Deep underground, Majorana is protected from cosmic radiation, which bombards the surface of the earth.

“We have to remove all radio activity from the detector that we’re building and the environment that we’re in,” said Elliot.

Copper is used to further shield the background radiation.

“So this electroforming process we use to form the copper is one that purifies the copper while you’re doing it, Elliot said.

Scientists will use two layers of copper to protect the detectors which are made from crystal germanium, a semi-metal similar to tin or silicon. The detectors will remain in this cold and quiet environment allowing scientists to collect data they hope will shed some light on what makes up the universe.

“This decay can only take place if neutrinos are their own anti-particles and if that’s true, it might explain why the universe is matter and not a balance of matter and anti-matter,” Eliott said.

Scientists began assembling parts for the Majorana Demonstrator Experiment underground last spring when the Davis Campus opened. Construction of the project will take another 2 years to complete.

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