UCL Astrophysics Group


Quantum tech to help weigh universe’s most elusive particle

13 January 2021

Prof. Hiranya Peiris, Prof. Andrew Pontzen and other UCL researchers are leading a £3.8 million project to develop quantum technology aimed at detecting the mass of a neutrino, the universe’s most abundant but elusive particle of matter.

Stars in the sky

The research is one of seven new UK projects funded by a £31 million UKRI investment that will use quantum technology to answer fundamental questions about the workings of the universe. UCL is playing a key role in three of the seven projects.

Neutrinos are millions of times lighter than electrons and are poorly understood as they can pass through matter undetected. Working out their absolute mass is one of the outstanding challenges in particle physics and is critical to our understanding of the origin of matter and the early evolution of the universe.

A team led by Professor Ruben Saakyan (UCL Physics & Astronomy) will develop quantum sensors that can detect electrons emitted in a radioactive decay of an atom with an unprecedented precision. This in turn will allow researchers to infer the neutrino mass. A magnetic trap in which atoms will be cooled to extremely low temperatures so they can be studied while almost at a standstill will be built at UCL.

The team includes researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Swansea and Warwick, and the National Physical Laboratory.

Professor Saakyan, lead investigator, said: “We are very excited to embark on this project. Quantum technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way we do experiments in particle physics. Measurements that seemed to be impossible yesterday become feasible, even though still very challenging. Weighing the absolute mass of a neutrino, once described as the tiniest quantity of reality ever imagined by a human being, is certainly in this category.”

Another research project involving UCL will use quantum simulators in the laboratory to mimic the extreme conditions of the early universe and black holes, which otherwise cannot be experimentally studied. Professor Hiranya Peiris and Professor Andrew Pontzen are leading the theoretical interpretation for an experiment, being built by the University of Cambridge, which could shed light on to the origins of the universe.

Professor Peiris said: “Solving this age-old mystery requires expertise from several different branches of physics. UKRI’s ground-breaking programme has enabled us to assemble such a team, which will use cutting-edge quantum technologies to pioneer a completely new approach to this puzzle.” 

A third project, which involves co-investigator Dr Ed Romans (London Centre for Nanotechnology and UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering), aims to contribute to the search for axions, low-mass “hidden” particles that are candidates to solve the mystery of dark matter.

The projects are supported through the Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics programme, delivered by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund. The programme is part of the National Quantum Technologies Programme.

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said: "STFC is proud to support these projects that utilise cutting-edge quantum technologies for novel and exciting research into fundamental physics.

“Major scientific discoveries often arise from the application of new technologies and techniques. With the application of emerging quantum technologies, I believe we have an opportunity to change the way we search for answers to some of the biggest mysteries of the universe. These include exploring what dark matter is made of, finding the absolute mass of neutrinos and establishing how quantum mechanics fits with Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“I believe strongly that this exciting new research programme will enable the UK to take the lead in a new way of exploring profound questions in fundamental physics.”

The UKRI announcement can be found here