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Northwestern Physicist Awarded $750,000 for Dark Matter Search

Kristian Hahn to explore origin of substance that makes up 85 percent of universe
  • Hahn intends to create dark matter through CERN Collider
  • DOE award for $750,000 over five years recognizes young researchers
  • Enhanced research tools may lead to direct observation of dark matter

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A Northwestern University researcher attempting to create ever-elusive dark matter with the world’s most powerful particle collider will receive $750,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

Kristian Hahn, assistant professor of physics in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is one of 49 young scientists from across the country to receive 2016 Early Career Research Program funding, announced Tuesday by the DOE Office of Science. His work, currently underway at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland, aims to elicit vital information about the substance scientists say makes up roughly 85 percent of the physical universe.

The LHC collides beams of protons at an unprecedented energy of 13 TeV, which is equivalent to squeezing the energy of an aircraft carrier traveling at 20 kilometers per second down to the diameter of a human hair.

“The origin of dark matter is one of the most interesting questions in science,” Hahn said Tuesday, one day after returning from a dark matter workshop in Seoul and while preparing to leave for another in London. “The universe is filled with a vast ocean of material we know almost nothing about.” 

Hahn intends to create dark matter as a product of the incredibly powerful proton collisions occurring inside the Large Hadron Collider. He and his research team expect to break new ground as a result of recent upgrades made to the particle collider.

“Recent improvements made to the LHC are not unlike those that preceded the historic discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012,” Hahn said. “People had been searching for the Higgs boson for years, but they couldn’t find it because we did not have a powerful enough energy collider.”

When scientists extended the reach of the collider, the Higgs boson particle was soon revealed.

“Similarly, the eventual High-Luminosity LHC, which will increase proton beam intensity by a factor of 10, will extend our reach even further,” said Hahn, who is redesigning data acquisition systems to capture the massive amount of information produced by the collisions.

“It’s an incredible amount of data,” Hahn said. “Beams collide every 25 nanoseconds; the detector, which records information about the resulting spray of particles, generates a petabyte of raw data per second. We need to develop new techniques for reducing this to a manageable rate at the High-Luminosity LHC.”

The Department of Energy Early Career Research Program, now in its seventh year, is designed to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work.

“We invest in promising young researchers early in their careers to support lifelong discovery science to fuel the nation’s innovation system,” said Cherry Murray, director of DOE’s Office of Science. “We are proud of the accomplishments these young scientists already have made and look forward to following their achievements in years to come.” 

Under the program, university-based researchers will receive at least $150,000 per year to cover summer salary and research expenses. Selection was based on peer review by outside scientific experts. 

To be eligible for the DOE award, a researcher must be an untenured, tenure-track assistant or associate professor at a U.S. academic institution or a full-time employee at a DOE national laboratory, who received a Ph.D. within the past 10 years.

Hahn’s research falls within the award category for high energy physics. Additional qualifying research topics include advanced scientific computing research, basic energy sciences, biological and environmental research, fusion energy sciences and nuclear physics.