University of Sheffield to lead multi-million pound project which could open up a new frontier in physics

  • A new UK wide project is working to detect hidden sector particles
  • The hidden sector refers to hypothetical quantum fields and their particles, which are yet to be observed
  • The discovery of these hidden particles could open up a completely new frontier in fundamental physics, provide insights into the what happened after the big bang and solve the dark matter problem

A collaboration of scientists from across the UK are working on a new project to detect hidden particles, the discovery of which could open up a new frontier in fundamental physics.

The project, Quantum Sensing for the Hidden Sector (QSHS), is led by scientists at the University of Sheffield and involves the Universities of Cambridge, Lancaster, Liverpool, Oxford, Royal Holloway and University College London and the National Physical Laboratory.

Funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), as part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the project is the best supported and largest UK effort in hidden sector physics to date, and involves scientists from a range of disciplines within physics.

QSHS aims to solve some of the most fundamental mysteries in modern physics using new technologies being developed for the rapidly expanding field of quantum measurement science.

Working with the Axion Dark Matter Experiment (ADMX) collaboration in the US, but also developing pioneering quantum electronics and novel experiment designs in the UK. The group aims to shed new light on the particles of the hidden sector which could provide new insights into fundamental mysteries, most importantly the dark matter problem, which is the observation that galaxies and the observable Universe are heavier than their observed constituents – stars, planets, dust and gas.

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 our team for the search.

It’s high risk, high reward science. You might see nothing or you might on the other hand make a massive discovery. Nobody knows which, but the discovery of hidden sector particles would open up a completely new frontier in fundamental physics.

Professor Ed Daw

Professor of dark matter and gravitational wave physics at the University of Sheffield

Professor Ed Daw, Professor of dark matter and gravitational wave physics at the University of Sheffield, and principal investigator for the project, said: “Hidden sector particles, if they exist, may be the so-far unidentified dark matter, and may in addition solve important outstanding problems with the theory that we have developed governing quarks and the atomic nucleus. The hidden sector may even provide critical insights into the inflationary phase thought to occur very shortly after the big bang.

“It’s high risk, high reward science. You might see nothing or you might on the other hand make a massive discovery. Nobody knows which, but the discovery of hidden sector particles would open up a completely new frontier in fundamental physics. It would be like the invention of the particle beam accelerator, a whole new way of doing science.

“Hidden sector particles may play other significant roles in physics, including in early Universe cosmology and the evolution of the Universe in the moments after it came into existence. 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 discovery of hidden sector particle dark matter would be a momentous event in fundamental physics. The dark matter problem is now over 50 years old, but in addition a new set of light particles would be bound to solve some of the persistent problems with the standard model of particle physics.

Professor Stafford Withington, Co-Investigator and Senior Project Scientist on QSHS from the University of Cambridge, said: “In recent years, the UK has invested heavily in establishing the laboratory infrastructure needed to develop a new generation of ultra-low-noise electronics and associated control systems. The new electronics operate in a fundamentally different way to the conventional electronics with which we are all familiar. It exploits the mysterious behaviour of quantum mechanics to yield sensitivities that are limited only by the fluctuations inherent in the fundamental nature of space-time. The electronic devices are based on a range of superconducting materials, and work at temperatures of around 10mK, where thermal fluctuations are essentially eliminated.

“The team will develop this technology to a high level of sophistication, and deploy it to search for the lowest-mass particles detected to date. These particles are predicted to exist theoretically, but have not yet been discovered experimentally. Our ability to probe the particulate nature of the physical world with sensitivities that push at the limits imposed by quantum uncertainty will open up a new frontier in physics.

“This new window will allow physicists to to explore the nature of physical reality at the most fundamental level, and it is extremely exciting that the UK will be playing a major international role in this new generation of science.”

The detection of these hidden particles requires technology of unprecedented sensitivity. The team are aiming to develop new and world-leading devices which could also be applied to make critical progress in other areas of physics such as quantum computing and quantum systems engineering.

The UK research team will form a collaboration with the US based ADMX collaboration, who operate the most sensitive detector for a particular variety of hidden sector particle, the axion.


The full QSHS team consists of The University of Sheffield (lead institution, principal investigator Prof. E Daw), University of Cambridge (co-I and senior project scientist Prof. Stafford Withington), Lancaster University (co-Is Prof. Yuri Pashkin, Dr. Ian Bailey, Dr. Ed Laird) The University of Liverpool (co-I DR. Ed Hardy), The National Physical Laboratory (co-Is Prof. Ling Hao, Prof. John Gallop), University of Oxford (co-Is Dr. Peter Leek, Prof. Gianluca Gregori, Prof. John March-Russell, Prof. Subir Sarkar, Dr. Boon-Kok Tan) , Royal Holloway – University of London (co-Is . Prof. Phil Meeson, Dr. Stephen West), and University College London (co-I Dr. Ed Romans).

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