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Laura Dreissen develops quantum sensor for dark matter with Veni grant

3 August 2023
What is the origin and composition of dark matter? Although 85% of all the matter in our universe consists of dark matter, we still know very little about it. Physicist Laura Dreissen therefore plans to use her Veni grant to search for signs of this mysterious and remarkable phenomenon.

Using new techniques drawn from quantum technology, she is pushing the boundaries of fundamental physics in the hope of learning more about certain properties of dark matter. Dreissen: "What that is exactly, I don't know yet either. However, history does show that a better understanding of how the world around us works is very important for technological applications. An example of this is GPS, which would not work without the development of Einstein's general theory of relativity."

A quantum sensor for dark matter
Physicists across the world are in the grip of the enigma that is dark matter. This has resulted in a vast number of theoretical models in this field, models which are currently being put to the test in a wide range of experiments. To date, however, no major breakthroughs have been forthcoming.

Through her research, Dreissen hopes to show that new quantum technologies can be used to further our knowledge of the fundamental laws of physics. The techniques she uses have been developed for technology such as quantum computers, but in this study they are being applied to much more fundamental research. It’s an approach that enables Dreissen to not only study quantum systems, but also to use them to achieve more precise measurements as a way of exploring the big questions in physics. She expects to develop a quantum sensor that can pick up signals that are 10,000 times fainter than traditional sensors were able to detect. By observing even the faintest of interactions with a new type of particle, she hopes to find valuable clues to the properties of dark matter. Even if no clear signal can be found, the study will make an important contribution to the search for dark matter by ruling out certain models.

Atoms at a standstill
To study matter, Dreissen is constructing a machine in which she can use electric fields and lasers to bring individual ions – electrically charged atoms – to an almost complete standstill. This creates an opportunity to manipulate and study the ions with remarkable precision. Stable lasers will be used to bring about entangled quantum states in two such ions, which means that both ions are actually sharing the same state. This gives Dreissen greater flexibility to design her own quantum state, one that is extra sensitive to the signals emitted by dark matter. The techniques developed in this research also hold relevance for technology such as quantum computers, which will have a whole range of societal applications in the future.

The Dutch Research Council (NWO) has awarded Laura Dreissen with Veni funding. This will allow her to further develop her own dark matter research over the next three years. The NWO Talent Programme gives researchers the freedom to conduct their own research based on creativity and passion. They receive a maximum of 280,000 euros. The programme stimulates innovation and curiosity. Free research contributes to and prepares us for tomorrow's society. This is why NWO focuses on a diversity of scientists, domains and backgrounds. Together with the Vidi and Vici grants, Veni is part of the Talent Programme.