Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built a tabletop particle detector which is able to identify an individual electron generated by a cloud of radioactive gas. The paper was published in the Physical Review Letters.
Physicists from MIT worked together with scientists from the University of California, University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Lab for 5 years to succeed in creating the detector. The instrument is capable of picking out individual electrons and placing them on top of a table.
In order to trap the electrons emitted by decay of radioactive gas the detector uses magnets. It holds the electron inside a magnetic bottle. When they are inside such a bottle the electrons send very weak signals which make their activity possible to be tracked over some milliseconds.
According to the scientists the radioactive gas separates the electrons. Professor Joe Formaggio, of MIT explained the process of separating the electrons and afterwards combining them into an atom. The activity of the electrons inside the magnet bottle displays a certain pattern. They vibrate at a certain baseline frequency which can spike when the electron and an atom of the radioactive gas collide.
Professor Formaggio said:
“We can literally image the frequency of the electron, and we see this electron suddenly pop into our radio antenna. Over time, the frequency changes, and actually chirps up. So these electrons are chirping in radio waves.”
This discovery is important because it can help determining the mass of neutrinos, which are elementary particles that exist throughout the Universe and are extremely difficult to detect because they simply pass though standard matter, they don’t interact with it.
In this research the scientists managed to record and observe the activity of 100,000 individual electrons. Formaggio explained that they had cornered the mass, but they had not measured it yet. If they determine the energy of an electron they will be able to tell the mass of the neutrinos. There are theories which speculate about the mass of neutrinos, but no clear measurements were made.
The success of this study encouraged scientists to make further research and use tritium gas for experiments. Tritium gas decays at a rate which enables a better observation of the electrons and it will consequently be useful for performing measurements. Results are expected in the next year or two.
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