MIT develops particle detector capable of detecting a single electron, neutrinos

A team of scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have reportedly developed a small, tabletop particle detector capable of identifying a single electron, which could eventually allow them to develop more precise calculations, including those of neutrinos.

According to a statement from MIT, the detector relies on magnets to trap electrons produced by the decay of radioactive gas. The detector then holds those electrons within a magnetic bottle, where the electrons produce an extremely weak signal that allows their activity to be tracked over the course of several milliseconds. The radioactive decay is then detected and recorded by a radio antenna device to pickup the very weak signals emitted by the electrons. The signals allow researchers to map the precise activity of the elections over several milliseconds, providing scientists with the ability to measure their energy output.

The precise measurements will allow researchers to record activity of more than 100,000 individual electrons in krypton gas, according to researchers, a first within science.

A majority of the electrons observed in recent tests, according to MIT researchers, shows the electrons vibrating at a baseline frequency before eventually dying out. The frequency spikes again when an electron comes in contact with an atom of radioactive gas, providing them with the pinpoint of where each electron is and its relative energy. As an electron comes in contact with multiple atoms in the detector, its energy appears to jump in a step- like pattern.

“We can literally image the frequency of the electron, and we see this electron suddenly pop into our radio antenna,” says Joe Formaggio, an associate professor of physics at MIT, who headed the project. “Over time, the frequency changes, and actually chirps up. So these electrons are chirping in radio waves.”

Researchers say the test could allow them to observe the most elusive particles in the universe: neutrinos. Neutrinos are among the most mysterious particles in the universe, and many scientists are still pondering their existence. Billions of them pass through each cell of our body every single day. However, the nearly massless particle has only been observed over the last two decades, and it does not appear to interact with mass in its current form. By having an idea of an electron’s energy, scientists can determine a neutrinos energy, and therefore, the mass of the neutrino.

“We have [the mass] cornered, but haven’t measured it yet,” Formaggio says. “The name of the game is to measure the energy of an electron — that’s your signature that tells you about the neutrino.”

The results are published in the latest edition of the magazine Physical Review Letters.