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Heising-Simons Foundation Supports NE Faculty Member, Karl van Bibber, Seeking Axion Dark Matter

Wednesday, Mar 18th 2015




Answering One Question to Better Understand the Universe

Heising-Simons Foundation Supports Research Seeking Axion Dark Matter

When considering what makes up the universe, it’s surprising that scientists could focus on just one yes/no question. But that’s exactly what a group of researchers supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation is doing.

“Does axion dark matter exist?”

Scientists across the US are working together to determine if axions — hypothetical subatomic particles — are the leading candidate for what makes up dark matter. Although this is a big question about the universe, Heising-Simons Foundation Science Program Director Cyndi Atherton said that researchers may be able to answer it in just a few years’ time.

“It’s a small range of particle masses to investigate, relatively speaking. So we’ll look for axion dark matter in that small range, and we’ll see it – or not,” Atherton said. “Either way, we will know more about the universe.”

If the axion does not exist, researchers will consider what other types of theoretical particles could make up our universe. But if it does, Atherton said, “It will basically rewrite physics.”

Only five percent of the universe consists of normal matter that we can observe with modern instruments, she explained. The rest of the universe consists of 68 percent dark energy and 27 percent dark matter – matter that does not interact with light and that can't be observed by any current technique. If axions were the explanation for all of dark matter, we’d be able to comprehend 27 percent more – another full quarter – of the universe around us.

The Heising-Simons Foundation chose to fund this research not only because of its promise for understanding, but also because its investment is substantial enough to allow researchers to move the needle in a major area of scientific discovery. The Heising-Simons Foundation has awarded three-year grants to researchers from institutions including the following:

  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • National Radio Astronomy Observatory/University of Virginia
  • University of California-Berkeley
  • University of Colorado-Boulder
  • University of Florida
  • University of Washington
  • Stanford University
  • Yale University

These grants are the first investments that the Heising-Simons Foundation has made in searching for axion dark matter, and Atherton anticipates future collaborations to include more research and scientific symposia.
Two of the projects funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation are spearheaded by UC Berkeley researchers who are leaders in dark-matter axion research.

In the first, UC Berkeley, Yale, Colorado and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are seeking to detect axions inside a microwave cavity within a strong magnetic field as they convert to photons. The Berkeley effort is led by Karl van Bibber, Professor of Nuclear Engineering, and focuses on making thin-film superconducting microwave cavities that will boost the axion conversion rate. Called the Axion Dark Matter eXperiment - High Frequency (ADMX-HF), this project will pave the way for searches at high axion mass, and serve as an innovation test-bed for developing new technologies to improve the sensitivity of larger experiments, in particular the ADMX platform at the University of Washington. As part of the same project, the researchers will try to improve the sensitivity of ADMX-HF by developing a microwave amplifier that evades the theoretical lower limit on noise set by quantum mechanics.

The second grant will fund a team consisting of researchers from UC Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Mainz who are developing an entirely new search strategy for axions of much lower mass – down to a trillionth of an electron-volt. Dubbed the Cosmic Axion Spin-Precession Experiment (CASPEr), this project employs very sensitive nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology to observe an effect predicted by theory, that the ubiquitous axion field would affect nuclear spins. Dmitry Budker and Surjeet Rajendran, UC Berkeley professors of physics, lead the effort and anticipate that the Heising-Simons funding will allow them to begin constructing the apparatus in 2016.

"The Heising-Simons funding goes beyond simply supporting research in this emerging new sector of dark-matter science," van Bibber said. "It strategically establishes a collaborative network for the whole national program in search of axions. We want the axion to be discovered here in the United States, and that will require a well-coordinated effort among many institutions."

Mark Heising and Elizabeth Simons established the Heising-Simons Foundation in 2007 to advance sustainable solutions for the environment, enhance the education of young learners, and support groundbreaking research in science. Learn more at