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Neutrino detector

A neutrino detector is a physics apparatus designed to study neutrinos. Because neutrinos are only weakly interacting with other particles of matter, neutrino detectors must be very large in order to detect a significant number of neutrinos. Neutrino detectors are often built underground to isolate the detector from cosmic rays and other background radiation. The field of neutrino astronomy is still very much in its infancy – the only confirmed extraterrestrial sources so far are the Sun and supernova SN1987A.

Various detection methods have been used. Super Kamiokande is a large volume of water surrounded by phototubes that watch for the Cherenkov radiation emitted when an incoming neutrino creates an electron or muon in the water. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory is similar, but uses heavy water as the detecting medium. Other detectors have consisted of large volumes of chlorine or gallium which are periodically checked for excesses of argon or germanium, respectively, which are created by neutrinos interacting with the original substance. MINOS uses a solid plastic scintillator watched by phototubes, Borexino uses a liquid pseudocumene scintillator also watched by phototubes while the proposed NOνA detector will use liquid scintillator watched by avalanche photodiodes.

The proposed acoustic detection of neutrinos via the thermoacoustic effect is the subject of dedicated studies done by the ANTARES and IceCube collaborations.


Neutrinos can interact via the neutral current (involving the exchange of a Z boson) or charged current (involving the exchange of a W boson) weak interactions.

In a neutral current interaction, the neutrino leaves the detector after having transferred some of its energy and momentum to a target particle. If the target particle is charged and sufficiently light (e.g. an electron), it may be accelerated to a relativistic speed and consequently emit Cherenkov radiation, which can be observed directly. All three neutrino flavors can participate regardless of the neutrino energy. However, no neutrino flavor information is left behind.
In a charged current interaction, the neutrino transforms into its partner lepton (electron, muon, or tau). However, if the neutrino does not have sufficient energy to create its heavier partner's mass, the charged current interaction is unavailable to it. Solar and reactor neutrinos have enough energy to create electrons. Most accelerator-based neutrino beams can also create muons, and a few can create taus. A detector which can distinguish among these leptons can reveal the flavor of the incident neutrino in a charged current interaction. Because the interaction involves the exchange of a charged boson, the target particle also changes character (e.g., neutron → proton).

Detection techniques


Antineutrinos were first detected in 1956 near a nuclear reactor. Reines and Cowan used two targets containing a solution of cadmium chloride in water. Two scintillation detectors were placed next to the cadmium targets. Antineutrinos with an energy above the threshold of 1.8 MeV caused charged current interactions with the protons in the water, producing positrons and neutrons. The resulting positron annihilations with electrons created photons with an energy of about 0.5 MeV. Pairs of photons in coincidence could be detected by the two scintillation detectors above and below the target. The neutrons were captured by cadmium nuclei resulting in gamma rays of about 8 MeV that were detected a few microseconds after the photons from a positron annihilation event.

This experiment was designed by Cowan and Reines to give a unique signature for antineutrinos, to prove the existence of these particles. It was not the experimental goal to measure the total antineutrino flux. The detected antineutrinos thus all carried an energy greater 1.8 MeV, which is the threshold for the reaction channel used (1.8 MeV is the energy needed to create a positron and a neutron from a proton). Only about 3% of the antineutrinos from a nuclear reactor carry enough energy for the reaction to occur.

Today, the much larger KamLAND detector uses similar techniques and 53 Japanese nuclear power plants to study neutrino oscillation.

Chlorine detectors consist of a tank filled with a chlorine containing fluid such as tetrachloroethylene. A neutrino converts a chlorine atom into one of argon via the charged current interaction. The fluid is periodically purged with helium gas which would remove the argon. The helium is then cooled to separate out the argon. A chlorine detector in the former Homestake Mine near Lead, South Dakota, containing 520 short tons (470 metric tons) of fluid, made the first measurement of the deficit of electron neutrinos from the sun (see solar neutrino problem).

A similar detector design uses a gallium → germanium transformation which is sensitive to lower energy neutrinos. A neutrino is able to react with an atom of gallium-71, converting it into an atom of the unstable isotope germanium-71. The germanium was then chemically extracted and concentrated. Neutrinos were thus detected by measuring the radioactive decay of germanium. This latter method is nicknamed the "Alsace-Lorraine" technique because of the reaction sequence (gallium-germanium-gallium) involved. These chemical detection methods are useful only for counting neutrinos; no neutrino direction or energy information is available. The GALLEX experiment used about 30 tons of gallium as reaction mass. This experiment is difficult to scale up due to the prohibitive cost of gallium. Larger experiments have therefore turned to a cheaper reaction mass.

Cherenkov detectors

"Ring-imaging" detectors take advantage of the Cherenkov light produced by charged particles moving through a medium faster than the speed of light in that medium. In these detectors, a large volume of clear material (e.g., water or ice) is surrounded by light-sensitive photomultiplier tubes. A charged lepton produced with sufficient energy typically travels faster than the speed of light in the detector medium (though slower than the speed of light in a vacuum). This generates an "optical shockwave" known as Cherenkov radiation which can be detected by the photomultiplier tubes. The result is a characteristic ring-like pattern of activity on the array of photomultiplier tubes. This pattern can be used to infer direction, energy, and (sometimes) flavor information about the incident neutrino.

Two water-filled detectors of this type (Kamiokande and IMB) recorded the neutrino burst from supernova 1987A. Kamiokande was able to detect the burst of neutrinos associated with this supernova, and in 1988 it was used to directly confirm the production of solar neutrinos. The largest such detector is the water-filled Super-Kamiokande. This detector uses 50,000 tons of pure water surrounded by 11,000 photomultiplier tubes buried 1 km underground.

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) uses heavy water. In addition to the neutrino interactions available in a regular water detector, the deuterium in the heavy water can be broken up by a neutrino. The resulting free neutron is subsequently captured, releasing a burst of gamma rays which are detected. All three neutrino flavors participate equally in this dissociation reaction.

The MiniBooNE detector employs pure mineral oil as its detection medium. Mineral oil is a natural scintillator, so charged particles without sufficient energy to produce Cherenkov light can still produce scintillation light. This allows low energy muons and protons, invisible in water, to be detected.
An illustration of the Antares neutrino detector deployed under water.

Located about 2.5 km under the Mediterranean Sea, the ANTARES (Astronomy with a Neutrino Telescope and Abyss environmental RESearch) has been fully operational since May 30, 2008. Consisting of an array of twelve separate 350 meter long vertical strings 70 meters apart from each other with 75 photomultiplier optical modules, this detector uses the sea water as the detector mass.

The Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) operated from 1996 to 2004. This detector used photomultiplier tubes mounted on strings, buried deep (1.5–2 km) inside the glacial ice at the South Pole in Antarctica. The ice itself is used as the detector mass. The direction of incident neutrinos is determined by recording the arrival time of individual photons using a three-dimensional array of detector modules containing one photomultiplier tube each. This method allows detection of neutrinos above 50 GeV with a spatial resolution of approximately 2 degrees. AMANDA has been used to generate neutrino maps of the northern sky in order to search for extraterrestrial neutrino sources and in searches for dark matter. AMANDA is currently in the process of being upgraded to the IceCube observatory, eventually increasing the volume of the detector array to one cubic kilometer.

Radio detectors

The Radio Ice Cerenkov Experiment uses antennas to detect Cerenkov radiation from high-energy neutrinos in Antarctica. The Antarctic Impulse Transient Antenna (ANITA) is a balloon-born device flying over Antarctica and detecting Askaryan radiation produced by ultra-high energy neutrinos interacting with the ice below.

Tracking calorimeters

Tracking calorimeters such as the MINOS detectors use alternating planes of absorber material and detector material. The absorber planes provide detector mass while the detector planes provide the tracking information. Steel is a popular absorber choice, being relatively dense and inexpensive and having the advantage that it can be magnetised. The NOνA proposal suggests eliminating the absorber planes in favor of using a very large active detector volume. The active detector is often liquid or plastic scintillator, read out with photomultiplier tubes, although various kinds of ionisation chambers have also been used.

Tracking calorimeters are only useful for high energy (GeV range) neutrinos. At these energies, neutral current interactions appear as a shower of hadronic debris and charged current interactions are identified by the presence of the charged lepton's track (possibly alongside some form of hadronic debris.) A muon produced in a charged current interaction leaves a long penetrating track and is easy to spot. The length of this muon track and its curvature in the magnetic field provide energy and charge (μ−
versus μ+
) information. An electron in the detector produces an electromagnetic shower which can be distinguished from hadronic showers if the granularity of the active detector is small compared to the physical extent of the shower. Tau leptons decay essentially immediately to either pions or another charged lepton and cannot be observed directly in this kind of detector. (To directly observe taus, one typically looks for a kink in tracks in photographic emulsion.)

Background suppression

Most neutrino experiments must address the flux of cosmic rays that bombard the Earth's surface. The higher energy (>50 MeV or so) neutrino experiments often cover or surround the primary detector with a "veto" detector which reveals when a cosmic ray passes into the primary detector, allowing the corresponding activity in the primary detector to be ignored ("vetoed"). For lower energy experiments, the cosmic rays are not directly the problem. Instead, the spallation neutrons and radioisotopes produced by the cosmic rays may mimic the desired physics signals. For these experiments, the solution is to locate the detector deep underground so that the earth above can reduce the cosmic ray rate to tolerable levels.


Neutrino detectors can be aimed at astrophysics observations, many astrophysics events being believed to emit neutrinos.

Underwater neutrino telescopes :

DUMAND (1976–1995, cancelled)
Baïkal (1993-)
ANTARES (2006-)
Km3net (proposed)
NESTOR Project (under development since 1998)

Underice neutrino telescopes :

AMANDA (1996, merged with IceCube)
IceCube (2004-)

Miscellaneous :

GALLEX (1991–1997, ended)

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