NWO funds three new groundbreaking Nikhef projects

27 July 2022

Three large projects under the Nikhef flag receive NWO funding for research that explicitly pushes the boundaries of current physics. This involves faster detectors, precision measurements on the electron and on ultra dense matter.

The awards under the ENW Open Competition XL program, intended for broad collaboration in fundamental research, were announced Wednesday. The projects will each receive up to more than 3 million euros, and include at least four new appointments for PhD students and postdocs.

The ENW-XL pot includes about 60 million euros this round. Nikhef was involved in three applications to NWO in this round, all of which have now been awarded. “A fantastic score,” says Nikhef institute manager Arjen van Rijn.

4D reconstructions

The FASTER project of Nikhef and the universities of Utrecht, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nijmegen and Groningen, among others, focuses on so-called superfast 4D reconstructions (space and time) of particle tracks in detectors at CERN in Geneva. The project will receive 3.1 million euros.

In the near future the LHC accelerator there will become up to 50 times more intense, the so-called high luminosity LHC. With this high intensity, many rare particle processes can be better studied, possibly showing the limits of current particle theory.

The deluge of particle collisions in the HL-LHC cannot be handled with the current spatial pixel sensors in the detectors, because they will be too slow and not spatially precise enough. The consortium led by Nikhef/UvA researcher Hella Snoek will work on new chip designs and electronics, and on new time-based algorithms for reading out the detector and quickly processing the raw signals into particle tracks.

Another special feature of the project is the involvement of a group in Maastricht working on medical imaging. They believe that the FASTER technologies can be used for ultra-fast diagnosis of tissues, for example in cancer surgery.

Dipole moment

A second ENW-XL grant will go towards precision measurements of the so-called electric dipole moment of the electron in a Nikhef collaboration between the University of Groningen, the Vrije Universiteit and the UvA. The partners already developed equipment in which bundles of molecules are slowed down for detailed measurements of their electrical bonds with lasers.

The components of these table-top experiments are now far enough along to be brought together and used, says lead applicant and Nikhef researcher Steven Hoekstra of the RU Groningen. This would enable even a factor of ten more precise measurements than have now been achieved internationally. The project has been granted 2.7 million euros.

The electron is in principle a point particle with a neatly symmetrically distributed charge. According to the Standard Model of particle physics, any deviation from this is much smaller than measurements can show.

However, the Standard Model certainly has limitations, and extensions of the theory give much larger deviations in the charge distribution of an electron on paper. Such deviations are still beyond the reach of large accelerators, but are expected to be measurable with table-top experiments such as in Groningen.

Nuclear force

The third proposal to receive funding comes from a consortium of astronomers and physicists who want to gain a better understanding of the theory of the strong nuclear force, the so-called quantum chromodynamics. All kinds of measurements are used, from nuclear physics to collisions in accelerators and from gravitational waves to astronomical observations of neutron stars.

The strong nuclear force plays an essential role in all these processes, but always in different ways. At present, these fields of research often operate separately from each other, the applicants note. While the researchers involved are often literally close to each other in the Netherlands.

The program is led by UvA astrophysicist Anna Watts and Nikhef researchers Sarah Caudill, Chris Van Den Broeck and Raimond Snellings and brings together, under the Nikhef flag, the universities of Utrecht, Amsterdam and Groningen, plus several foreign partners. The project receives 3.1 million euros.