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January 11, 2024

Could liquid neon be the answer to monitoring the safe operation of Small Modular Reactors?

As the newest member to the COHERENT Collaboration at the Spallation Neutron Source based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, the CNL research team of Andrew Erlandson, David Perez Loureiro, Mark Stringer, and Bhaskar Sur will be working to enable the future use of liquid neon as a tool in detecting neutrinos to help monitor the safe operation of small modular reactors or SMRs.

Neutrinos are incredibly abundant particles: tiny, neutral, and so light that no one has been able to measure their absolute mass yet. All nuclear reactors produce immense amounts of them through the beta decay of the fission products in the nuclear fuel. Basically, the more powerful the reactor is, the more neutrinos that are produced.  And unlike neutrons, neutrinos are practically impossible to stop which makes them a tell-tale signature of the operation of a reactor, even at long distances. This same feature also makes them difficult to detect.  Some of the greatest minds in particle physics have come up with clever ways to measure them, but the quest to detect them continues!

Joining the quest led by the COHERENT Collaboration and with the support of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Federal Nuclear Science & Technology Work Plan, Erlandson and his team will be able to perform their experiments alongside the collaboration’s work, which came together to make the first observation of CEvNS (pronounced “sevens”). This is the long-ago predicted process of a neutrino scattering off of a nucleus in both an elastic and coherent way (think of a marble bouncing off a bowling ball).

“Bhaskar Sur saw the first results from COHERENT back in 2017 and posed the question, ‘What can be done with this new tool?’,” says Erlandson.  “It got us thinking about old problems in new ways. For example, using neutrinos to monitor nuclear reactors.”

With the immense amount of knowledge the team has in using noble liquid detectors (they are also a member of the Dark matter Experiment using Argon Pulseshape discrimination or DEAP-3600), they plan to leverage it to detect reactor neutrinos with CEvNS. It turns out that liquid neon is a viable option as a detection medium for this purpose since it’s lighter than argon and it will also produce small flashes of light when particles interact with it. It’s entirely possible to modify a liquid argon detector to use liquid neon instead, and that proposed work won them their seat in the collaboration. As COHERENT looks to crack the physics of CEvNS, the CNL team will leverage the physics to determine if neon will work for reactor neutrino applications. It’s a match made in neutrino heaven, or more appropriately – Oak Ridge National Laboratories’ Neutrino Alley!

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