High risk, high reward science: using quantum technology to search for hidden sector particles

13 January 2021

3D render of a superconducting qubit array in a microwave waveguide to be explored for use in detection of the dark matter candidate particle, the ‘axion’

Oxford’s Department of Physics is playing a key role in three of the seven quantum projects supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) including Quantum Sensing for the Hidden Sector (QSHS). With QSHS, we are joining forces with six other universities as well as the National Physical Laboratory on a multi-million-pound project which could open up a new frontier in physics.

Cutting-edge quantum technology

The project will use cutting-edge quantum technology to try to detect hidden sector particles – hypothetical quantum fields and their particles which are yet to be observed. Discoveries and advances in this field could provide insights into what happened after the big bang and solve the dark matter problem – the observation that galaxies and the observable Universe are heavier than their observed constituents. The extra matter making up the difference could be made up wholly or partly of ultra-light particles, so-called hidden sector particles that have so far evaded detection. The signatures of these particles are signals so faint that the world's most sensitive measurement devices will be developed by the team for the search.

The project is the largest UK effort in this space to date and five of the 16 leading scientists are from Oxford’s Department of Physics: Dr Peter Leek, Professor Gianluca Gregori, Professor John March-Russell, Professor Subir Sarkar and Dr Boon-Kok Tan.

‘It is extraordinarily exciting to be part of such a significant national effort to explore what is effectively the unknown,’ comments Professor March-Russell. ‘While we are aware that it is entirely possible that we might not find any answers, equally, if we do make a discovery, it would unlock a whole new level of fundamental physics and change the course of the study of matter.’

Journey of discovery

The Univeristy of Sheffield is the lead institution of the project and Professor Ed Daw, Professor of dark matter and gravitational wave physics, is principal investigator for the project: ‘We are excited to be embarking on this journey of discovery, and we hope the British public will share in this excitement as we start this research project.’

The QSHS project is made up of scientists from the universities of Sheffield, Cambridge, Lancaster, Liverpool, Royal Holloway and University College London along with Oxford and the National Physical Laboratory. The project is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Council (EPSRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics programme

UKRI is supporting seven quantum projects through its Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics (QTFP) programme: QSNET; Quantum-enhanced interferometry for New Physics; Quantum Sensors for the Hidden Sector; Determination of Absolute Neutrino Mass using Quantum Technologies; Quantum Simulators for Fundamental Physics; Quantum-enhanced Superfluid Technologies for Dark Matter and Cosmology; and a UK Atom Interferometer Observatory and Network.

Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of the Department of Physics at Oxford, concludes: ‘The cutting-edge interdisciplinary QTFP programme brings together EPSRC and STFC scientists from UK universities, national labs and National Quantum Technology Programme (NQTP) Hubs, with international partners to conduct seven ambitious experiments. Just as quantum computing promises to revolutionise traditional computing, technologies such as quantum sensors have the potential to radically change our approach to understanding the universe.

‘The programme would not have been possible without a compelling science case, the formation of an enthusiastic expert interdisciplinary community, the existence of UKRI’s world-leading National Quantum Technologies Programme, and the vision of Professors Sir Mark Walport (then Chief Executive, UKRI), Mark Thompson (Executive Chair, STFC), Dame Lynn Gladden, (Executive Chair, EPSRC), Sir Peter Knight (Chair, NQTP Strategic Advisory Board) and Ian Walmsley (then Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, University of Oxford). Exciting science awaits!’

Oxford’s Department of Physics is also working on the UK Atom Interferometer Observatory and Network (AION) project as well as QUEST-DMC.

Image caption: Render of a superconducting qubit array in a microwave waveguide to be explored for use in detection of the dark matter candidate particle, the ‘axion’ © James Wills, University of Oxford