Joint United States, China Project Studies Origins of Universe

UH Physicist Plays Key Role in Daya Bay Project Supported by $745K of DOE grants

Deep beneath a mountain in southern China, a University of Houston (UH) physicist is part of a vast international team of researchers trying to unlock the secrets of a mysterious particle that could shed light on the history of the universe and how existence is possible.

Daya Bay PanoramaThe Daya Bay project, billed as one of the largest scientific collaborations between the United States and China, will study a type of subatomic particle known as neutrinos. The project includes researchers from 38 institutions around the world. UH’s Kwong Lau, a physics professor, is playing a key role in designing the 160-ton detectors scientists need to capture and study the elusive particles.

This fall, Lau received a $425,000 grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to continue his work to design a detector shield to eliminate cosmic rays that would interfere with the experiments. This award builds on a previous $320,000 DOE grant Lau received at the beginning of the Daya Bay project.

The difficulty of capturing and studying neutrinos free from the static of other particles and cosmic rays is a driving factor behind the size, cost and complexity of the project. Neutrinos are produced in abundance by nuclear reaction, so the project is located near the world’s second-largest nuclear power plant.

To keep out cosmic rays, the experiment will take place deep inside an excavated mountain, with detectors placed inside large pools of water, to further protect from radiation that could interfere with measurements. Even then, traces of cosmic rays can still seep into the mountain, so Lau’s work on the detector shields will be crucial.

Neutrinos have become a hot topic in the world of physics after scientists recently discovered that neutrinos do, in fact, contain a tiny amount of mass, Lau said. Neutrinos, which are particles with no electric charge, have properties that have long perplexed scientists. For example, not only can they move through space and rock, but they can even move through people without interacting with them. Neutrinos are, thus, not harmful to humans, since they do not interact with matter like other types of radiation. For instance, in the time it takes to read a sentence, one hundred trillion neutrinos from the sun can zip through the human body unnoticed.

There are three types of neutrinos, and the particles morph between types as they travel. Nuclear reactors produce electron-type neutrinos. As these particles are captured and measured in different states by the massive sensor apparatus being developed at the Daya Bay nuclear power plant, scientists hope to learn more about how neutrinos transition among the three categories.

“Understanding how neutrinos morph could help scientists understand the big questions, such as why the universe contains more matter than anti-matter – making existence possible,” Lau said. “In theory, the Big Bang should have created equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, canceling each other out.”

Kwong Lau at Daya BayThe project officially kicked off in 2007 at a groundbreaking ceremony in the Guangdong province near Hong Kong, attended by Lau and UH physics department chair Larry Pinsky. The mountain has been excavated, and now the eight massive detectors to be used in the experiments are being built. Each will be placed in pools 20 meters wide and 10 meters deep located at varying distances from the reactor so researchers can measure the neutrinos at different intervals.

Lau suggests that studying neutrinos in this manner may also give birth to new branches of astronomy through the use of neutrino detectors. To date, scientists have already learned more about the sun from the neutrinos it emits, and, Lau states, some researchers are thinking about using them for communication.

“Neutrinos, despite their humble and elusive beginning, are beginning to unlock more mysteries of the universe,” Lau said. “Basic research has once again elevated our understanding of the physical world we live in.”


Editor’s note: This news release was written in collaboration with Rolando Garcia, science writer for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics office of communication. High-resolution photos are available to media by contacting Lisa Merkl.

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