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Fermilab scientists finish building detector ahead of neutrino experiment

Moving last NOvA Detector Block inplace. | Reider Hahn ~ Fermilab

Moving the last NOvA Detector Block into place. | Reider Hahn ~ Fermilab

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Updated: February 14, 2014 6:17AM

BATAVIA — How much plastic does it take to build a detector capable of detecting one of the world’s most elusive particles?

On Friday, Fermilab crews carefully moved a 13-1/2 ton block of plastic and fiber optic cable, the final piece of the lab’s “Ghost Particle” detector, down a narrow 350-foot shaft. The piece, housed in an underground cavern on site, is just part of a 300-ton detector designed to detect neutrinos, some of the most abundant, but elusive, particles in the universe, according to Fermilab officials.

Now nearly completed, Fermilab’s neutrino detector will be tested, inspected and connected over the next few months, said Karen Kephart, assistant head of Fermilab’s particle physics division. Once fully built, the detector will be filled with a liquid scintillator, she said.

“That’s what catches the particle to make a sensor go off,” Kephart said.

With Fermilab’s NOvA Neutrino Experiment, researchers aim to learn about the role that neutrinos played in the evolution of the universe. But to learn more about neutrinos, researchers have to be able to detect them.

“Our major goal is to detect the neutrinos,” said Xuebing Bu, a Fermilab research associate who has been working on the project for two years.

The experiment

How abundant are neutrino particles? A billion times more abundant than particles that make up stars, planets and people, according to Fermilab researchers. Trillions of neutrinos from the sun pass through people’s bodies each second.

Although all around, neutrinos interact so rarely with other particles that they are very difficult to detect, researchers said.

Fermilab scientists plan to combat neutrinos’ difficult detection in two ways.

First, researchers will use particle accelerators to create beams with tons of neutrinos. Fermilab’s accelerator produces the most intense neutrino beam in the world, according to Bu.

Second, researchers designed detectors to be massive in size. Because so few particles will pass through the detectors, Fermilab needs the detectors to be as large as possible, according to Bill Lee, Fermilab’s underground coordinator. The detectors — the size of a house and larger — can spot the ghost particles when they interact with other matter.

Traveling at close to the speed of light, the neutrino beam will travel from Fermilab in Batavia straight through the earth to northern Minnesota — no tunnel necessary. The neutrinos will travel the 500-mile distance in less than three milliseconds, according to Fermilab researchers.

Although Fermilab’s detector is massive, it is much smaller than the neutrino detector in Ash River, Minn. That detector is slated to be 14,000 tons and about 200 feet long when completed, according to Fermilab officials.

The scientists will use Fermilab’s neutrino beam to explore the strange properties of neutrinos, especially the elusive transition of muon neutrinos to electron neutrinos. Researchers want to determine the difference in mass of neutrinos that have transitioned, Bu said.

The first modules of the NOvA detector in Minnesota started recording particle tracks in March 2013.

Fermilab has been working on the NOvA project since 2005. Both detectors are expected to be operational in summer 2014, according to Fermilab officials.

spokesman Andre Salles.

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