Drexel Researchers Join Team Looking for Proof of Undiscovered Subatomic Particle

atom diagram
A diagram of an atom’s nucleus with neutrons in blue and protons in red.

Recently, scientists have noticed that nuclear power plants’ reactors often emit fewer sub-atomic particles than expected. A group of Drexel researchers is now part of a team that will look into whether there is a particle that exists outside of our current understanding of physics that might be accounting for that deficit.

Michelle Dolinski, PhD, and Russell Neilson, PhD, both assistant professors in the College of Arts and Sciences, will lead the Drexel contingent joining the PROSPECT team, a Yale-led research group which announced today that it received a $3 million federal grant. That money will go toward the search for “sterile” neutrinos, which are hypothesized non-charged subatomic particles that could represent a new form of matter.

“Sterile neutrinos would be a huge discovery in fundamental particle physics — basically a brand-new particle that would open up a whole new field of inquiry and experimentation,” Dolinski said.

PROSPECT (which stands for Precision Oscillation and Spectrum Experiment) will build a “first-of-its kind, short distance detection device” which will be able to get closer to nuclear reactors and more accurately measure the particles coming off of it.

“The technology developed for PROSPECT will allow neutrinos emitted from nuclear reactors to be precisely measured within a few meters of the reactor,” Neilson explained. “Until now, this has only been possible with large underground detectors much farther away from the reactor core. This could lead to improved understanding of nuclear dynamics and improved monitoring of nuclear reactors.

“This data would be very useful to improve models of the physics of nuclear power generation,” Dolinski added.

Dolinski and Neilson will be joined in their work by Drexel postdoctorate students Yung-Ruey Yen, PhD, and Jonathan Insler, PhD, graduate student Kelley Commeford, and a number of undergraduates.

In development for three years, PROSPECT includes 68 scientists representing Yale, Drexel and eight other universities, including Temple, whose team Drexel is working with closely.

“It’s an excellent marriage of fundamental science and potential applications,” Karsten Heeger, a Yale physicist who is also PROSPECT’s principle investigator, said of the project. “We want to better understand the emission of neutrinos from a reactor and study the fundamental properties of elementary particles. By going very close to a research reactor — less than 10 meters from the reactor core — PROSPECT will have unparalleled sensitivity to study the energy distribution of neutrinos as they leave the reactor.”

Media interested in speaking to Dolinski or Neilson can contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or fmo26@drexel.edu.

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