A Montclair State University professor’s physics research could shed light on dark matter and the Big Bang.
Physics and Astronomy Assistant Professor Kent Leung was recently awarded a grant totaling $436,000 over five years from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to support research into the neutron’s extremely small electric dipole moment, which has never been measured. Determining its value could shed light on fundamental problems in physics, including how matter formed during the Big Bang or the existence of new particles that might explain dark matter.
While neutrons are (as their name implies) electrically neutral, they are composed of component particles called quarks, which are themselves charged. An electric dipole moment is a measure of how those charges are separated within the neutron.
The focus of this grant, titled “Development of measurement cells for the neutron Electric Dipole Moment experiment at the Spallation Neutron Source,” will be on the construction of measurement cells – toaster-sized devices that will hold ultracold neutrons cooled down to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero – to be installed in a building-size experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Nearly two dozen universities and laboratories are involved in the research, and their goal for the experiment is a factor 100 improvement upon prior attempts to constrain the neutron’s electric dipole. To put the expected precision in scale, if the neutron were as large as the Earth, the experiment would be sensitive to charges separated by less than the width of a single virus particle.
Leung, who joined the University in September 2021 following research professor positions at NC State and Duke Universities, likened the experiment of the electric dipole moment to watch-making. “Poring over all the intricate parts of a complex experiment that we built – looking for tiny deviations in how our watch ticks.”
“We are thrilled that Professor Leung brings a new and exciting research field to our department – that of low-energy nuclear physics,” says Marc Favata, chairperson of the Physics and Astronomy department. “In addition to contributing to world-class research, this award will provide great hands-on experiences for our students – introducing them to state-of-the-art hardware and technology.”