Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, January 17, 2023

South Dakota Mines Students Help Design and Build Photon Monitoring System for DUNE

South Dakota Mines physics doctoral student Jairo Rodriguez and mechanical engineering masters student Kole Pickner test optical fibers by submerging them in liquid nitrogen to determine how well they will perform in DUNE. 

Students at South Dakota Mines are leading the way in calibrating the sensors that will detect and track tiny flashes of light inside the massive Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) that will be constructed at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).

DUNE will advance the study of the elusive ghost particle known as the neutrino. The scale of DUNE is mind boggling. It’s one part of the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF), hosted by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.  A particle accelerator at Fermilab in Illinois will shoot a neutrino beam more than 800 miles straight through the Earth to a DUNE particle detector 4,850 feet below ground at SURF. The detector is composed of seven-story-high tanks filled with liquified argon that must be kept at a temperature around 300 below zero °F. The neutrinos bombarding the tanks will occasionally hit an argon atom, causing a tiny flash of light. The nature of the light generated by these interactions will give researchers a new understanding of the mysterious neutrinos and help answer several fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the evolution of the universe. 

Mines - DUNE 2023 -2 The DUNE collaboration includes more than 1,400 people from 200 universities and institutions across more than 30 nations. Ian Helgeson is completing his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Mines. He spent the past year helping build components of the ultraviolet (UV) photon detector monitoring system.  He says the chance to do hands-on work on a world-class experiment as an undergraduate is an incredible opportunity. “One of the best things is being able to collaborate with others all around the world who are working on this gigantic project. The design criteria are very stringent and the components we build have to interface perfectly with everything else in the experiment in order to achieve groundbreaking science in the end,” says Helgeson.

One of the challenges Helgeson helped tackle was creating extremely efficient fiber optic connections. “To reduce light loss in this experiment we had to polish the ends of the optical fibers to a high precision. This process took hours and hours to do by hand. Basically, the optical fiber needs to be perfectly flat because any light loss affects the correct operation of the photon detector monitoring system. Part of our job was to build tools to reduce this effort and improve quality of the fiber and explore future solutions as automatic polish machines that could expedite the preparation time of the optical fibers that will be needed for DUNE.”

Mines student Kole Pickner just finished his master’s degree in mechanical engineering while working on the project. Pickner also worked on the photon detector monitoring system for DUNE. The detectors inside DUNE are like the eyes of the experiment, and in a sense, Pickner’s job was to teach these eyes how to see. The system Pickner helped design and build had to be exceedingly robust, because once a component is installed inside DUNE and the experiment is filled with liquid argon, it can’t be opened up. “You can’t just open a door in 10 or 15 years to fix a broken component, the parts we build must last for the entire life of the experiment. That’s an additional engineering challenge here,” says Pickner.  Pickner just graduated and has accepted a job with Lockheed Martin Space in Denver where he will work on several NASA projects including missions to Mars.

Mines DUNE 2023 3A physics doctoral graduate student at Mines Jairo Rodriguez, is leading the installation of the fiber optic cables and the photon detector monitoring system components inside the ProtoDUNE detector at CERN in Switzerland. Rodriguez’ work involved installing the systems he built with his colleagues and integrating them with the rest of the components inside the prototype version of the DUNE detector. “The model often needs changes when transitioning to real life, and we are constantly adjusting our design to optimize performance,” says Rodriguez.

The photon detector monitoring system, designed and built by this team, is expected to start operation later this year. South Dakota Mines assistant professor of physics, David A. Martinez Caicedo, Ph.D., gives praise to this team of students for their hard work and success. Dr. Martinez group’s work on this project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. He also credits many collaborators who are working on DUNE at other institutions. “We worked really closely with the Argonne National Laboratory team led by Dr. Zelimir Djurcic and learned from their experience with photon detector monitoring systems in addition to many others around the nation. These collaborations have proven vital for the successes of our students and the project overall,” says Martinez.

Martinez notes that the success of science experiments of this size is not just thanks to the ingenuity of researchers alone.

“There is a lot that goes into building these components and how they interface with all the other components in the detector, an incredibly important part of this success is supply chain management and administration,” says Martinez. “It’s a tough job, and we give huge thanks to Connie Krosschell, the physics department secretary, who was instrumental in expediting and following up on all the procurement of the key components to keep the project on time.”


About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu

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