DOE Pulse
  • Number 360  |
  • April 9, 2012

Researcher takes aim at never-before-seen state of matter

University of New Hampshire researcher Sarah Phillips

University of New Hampshire
researcher Sarah Phillips.

Very few people can claim to be the first to see a new state of matter. Sarah Phillips wants to join those select few. Phillips took a step closer to that goal when she was named the recipient of the 2012 Jefferson Science Associates Postdoctoral Research Grant, which is presented for a project related to research at DOE's Jefferson Lab.

Sarah Phillips is a research scientist at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the lab's scientist user community.

Sarah Phillips is a research scientist at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the lab's scientist user community.
She is using the $10,000 grant to build a piece of equipment for an experiment to see a predicted, but never-before-seen state of matter called true muonium. True muonium can be thought of as a rare atom made out of two particles that are similar to electrons, called muons. Muons are produced high above Earth when cosmic rays strike the atmosphere. Two types of muons, a muon and an antimuon, combine to form true muonium.

"It's quite rare. And I think that's probably why it hasn't been observed before. Unless you were specifically looking for it, you'd just completely miss it," Phillips says.

She hopes to add the search for true muonium to an existing experiment that will slam energetic electrons from Jefferson Lab's CEBAF accelerator into a target made of tungsten to produce heavy photons, which are particles that may interact with dark matter. According to theoretical calculations, this experiment is also likely to produce true muonium.

"We're expecting to only produce around 100 or 150 in the standard setup. It seems that you can produce more if you change your target to optimize it for true muonium, so that's what the proposal is for: To try to optimize it so that we can make more of the true muonium atoms, to have a better chance at not only proving them, but trying to study them," Phillips explains.

Phillips was selected for the grant by the Jefferson Lab Users Group Board of Directors, the governing body of the group that represents the scientists who use lab facilities to conduct research. In making the award, the board judged each applicant on his or her record of accomplishment in physics, proposed use of the research grant and the likelihood of further accomplishments in the research fields pursued at Jefferson Lab. The award was presented by Sebastian Kuhn, board chairman and a professor of physics at Old Dominion University.

"In the end, the proposal by Sarah Phillips stood out because it appeared to be literally a 'one-person project' that pushes a completely new experimental initiative. The board also noted Sarah's outreach efforts and her role in inspiring younger students," Kuhn said.

Phillips says mentoring the next generation of scientists is an important part of her duties at the University of New Hampshire, and she looks forward to working daily with students in the lab.

"For a lot of them, it's the first time that they actually get to do any research. They really get the opportunity to get their hands dirty and do some things in the lab, and they just love it," she says.

Submitted by DOE's Jefferson Lab