Jessai Flores

A novel idea proposed by David Moore, Yale assistant professor of physics, may bring the scientific community one step closer to understanding dark matter –– a hypothetical, mysterious substance that scientists estimate occupies around 85 percent of the matter in the universe.

Moore’s proposal takes existing technology in the quantum computing field and repurposes it for the detection of dark matter. The proposed method utilizes trapped electrons and ions as ultrasensitive detectors to find weakly interacting particles such as dark matter. Trapped electrons serve this purpose well due to their light charge, which can be affected even by the weak forces caused by dark matter. This method of dark matter detection has the potential to further the scientific community’s understanding of both dark matter and the universe as a whole. Moore worked with three other collaborators at different institutions to complete the proposal.

“[Trapped electrons] are the lightest charged and known particles,” Hartmut Haeffner, an assistant physics professor at University of California Berkeley and one of the researchers involved in the proposal, wrote in an email to the News. “Thus, their motional state is affected by even very small forces.”

Although dark matter makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe, detecting its presence is a difficult task. Dark matter, unlike normal matter, does not interact with electromagnetic forces. Thus, only extremely sensitive particles are viable dark matter detectors.

According to Daniel Carney, an assistant physics professor at U.C. Berkeley involved in the study, the ability to detect weak signals has been extensively studied by the scientific community. 

“In physics, we’re constantly trying to figure out how to detect weaker and weaker signals,” Carney wrote in an email to the News. “For example, the gravitational wave community now detects the motion of a 40 kilogram object to within 0.1% of the width of a proton.”

To detect dark matter, the researchers utilized already-developed technologies in quantum computing, repurposing them to search for dark matter.

According to Moore, quantum computers are built using “trapped charged particles,” which happen to be “excellent dark matter detectors” due to their sensitivity. 

“The electron is ‘trapped’ by applying a laser that creates a potential,” Carney wrote. “Basically the electron is like a ball at the bottom of a U-shaped valley. If something hits the electron, it goes up the hills of the valley.”

Using this method, the researchers hope to open the doors to further study of dark matter and its properties. 

Despite dark matter making up such a significant proportion of matter in the universe, Moore explained that prior to the proposal, scientists had not been able to detect its presence in a laboratory setting.

“It holds together the largest kinds of structures in the universe,” Moore said. “But we haven’t ever been able to detect it here on Earth … even though it’s, you know, the most prevalent matter in the universe.”

Moore explained that having the ability to “see” the location of dark matter particles would allow scientists to also measure their velocity distribution. He envisions the study of dark matter moving away from particle physics and more towards the astronomy of dark matter, which will lead to a better understanding of the universe.

Despite this, however, Moore believes that the scientific community is still one step away from truly understanding dark matter.

“You have to have really new, much more sensitive detectors or fundamentally new ideas to detect some of the other possibilities for what [dark matter] could be,” Moore said.

Nevertheless, the method of detection proposed by Moore and his team has the potential to be useful in many other fields.

Carney emphasized that the extreme sensitivity of trapped electrons can likely be utilized in a multitude of scenarios other than dark matter detection, although many of these scenarios are yet to be discovered.

“The single electrons can detect energies something like a millionth or billionth the scale of a typical chemical energy –– this is insanely fine resolution,” Carney wrote. “There’s probably lots of good things this could be used for, but we need the community to help think of good use cases.”

Moore has been a member of the Yale faculty since 2016. 

Alex Ye covers faculty and academics. He previously covered the endowment, finance and donations. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, he is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight majoring in applied mathematics.