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Physicists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have made significant contributions to our understanding of dark matter, through their work on multiple large-scale collaborative experiments. In the past two years, several new faculty hires at Illinois Physics have added their expertise and insight to the search for this elusive particle. And now a newly founded campus center, the Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe (ICASU), has taken on dark matter as a main research focus, synergizing efforts and supporting collaboration across scientific disciplines at Illinois and beyond. 

  • Research Funding

The Grainger College of Engineering’s Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST) is a partner institution in two of the five Department of Energy Quantum Information Science Research Centers, announced by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on August 26. These centers are aligned with the U.S. National Quantum Initiative Act signed into law in 2018, which called for a long-term, large-scale commitment of U.S. scientific and technological resources to quantum science.

The two centers, Q-NEXT and Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center (SQMS) will be each be funded at $115 million over five years, with $15 million in Fiscal Year 2020 dollars and out year funding contingent on Congressional appropriations. These are part of a large-scale Department of Energy federal program to facilitate and foster quantum innovation in the United States. 

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  • Research

The theory behind dark matter detection dates back to a 1985 paper that considered how a neutrino detector could be repurposed to look for particles of the substance. The study proposed that an incoming dark matter particle could hit an atomic nucleus in the detector and give it a kick—similar to one billiard ball crashing into another. This collision would transfer momentum from the dark matter, walloping the nucleus hard enough to make it spit out an electron or a photon.

At high energies, this picture is essentially fine. Atoms in the detector can be thought of as free particles, discrete and unconnected to one another. At lower energies, however, the picture changes.

“Your detectors are not made of free particles,” says Yonatan (Yoni) Kahn, a dark matter theorist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the first paper. “They’re just made of stuff. And you have to understand the stuff if you want to understand how your detector actually works.”

  • Faculty Highlights
  • High Energy Physics

Yoni's research asks questions such as “What is the mass of the dark matter particle,” “What other particles that we know of does it interact with,” and “How was it created in the early universe”?