The GERDA experiment is investigating whether the neutrino is its own antiparticle. The search is on for so-called neutrinoless double-beta decay, which has never been observed before. One isotope which could exhibit this extremely rare radioactive decay is germanium-76. The experiment is therefore based on germanium detectors which have been enriched with this isotope.
Neutrinoless double-beta decay involves the conversion of two neutrons into two protons and two electrons. Two neutrinos are also released in this process, but they can annihilate each other – provided they are their own antiparticles. This decay therefore exists only if
- neutrinos and their antiparticles are identical
- and have a mass.
The GERDA experiment incorporates a total of 36 kilograms of detector material. This corresponds to around 1026 germanium-76 nuclei in total. With this number of nuclei, it should prove possible to detect this decay within a few years if its half-life is 1026 years or less.
Should GERDA measure a small number of the hypothetical and extremely rare decays, this would be a possible answer to the question: Why the universe contains matter, but no longer contains any antimatter – the key to our existence. Moreover, the physicists could draw conclusions about the mass of the neutrino.
As neutrinoless double-beta decay is so rare, the GERDA experiment has to have the best possible protection against disturbing influences. It is therefore located in the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in Italy, where 1.4 kilometers of mountain rock shield it against cosmic radiation from space.
The germanium detectors are furthermore in an extremely clean environment: in a tank made of specially selected steel with a very low radiation rate which is filled with liquid argon. This vessel is in turn housed in a ten-meter-diameter tank filled with ultrapure water.
The GERDA collaboration has around 120 members from 16 institutes in six European countries, including the Max Planck Institutes for Physics (MPP) and Nuclear Physics. The GERDA Group at the MPP was responsible for constructing the cleanroom above the cryostat, and for developing and constructing the infrastructure used to lower the detectors into the argon tank, the so-called lock system.
Improved Limit on Neutrinoless Double-β Decay of 76Ge from GERDA Phase II
Phys. Rev. Lett. 120 (2018) 132503
Upgrade for Phase II of the Gerda experiment
Eur. Phys. J. C78 (2018) 388
Background-free search for neutrinoless double-β decay of 76Ge with GERDA
Nature 544 (2017) 47
Limits on uranium and thorium bulk content in GERDA Phase I detectors
Astropart. Phys. 91 (2017) 15