• 2/14/2022
  • Reading time 4 min.

KATRIN experiment limits neutrino mass with world record precision

Neutrinos are lighter than 0.8 electron volts

The international KArlsruhe TRItium Neutrino Experiment (KATRIN), located at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), has broken an important "barrier" in neutrino physics which is relevant for both particle physics and cosmology. From the data recently published in the journal Nature Physics, an upper limit of 0.8 eV can be derived for the mass of the neutrino, a precision that has not been achieved anywhere in the world before.

Einbau von Elektroden in das Hauptspektrometer des KATRIN-Experiments Joachim Wolf / KIT
Mounting of electrodes in the main spectrometer of the KATRIN experiment.

Neutrinos are arguably the most fascinating elementary particle in our universe. In cosmology they play an important role in the formation of large-scale structures, while in particle physics their tiny but non-zero mass sets them apart, pointing to new physics phenomena beyond our current theories. Without a measurement of the mass scale of neutrinos our understanding of the universe will remain incomplete.

This is the challenge the international KATRIN experiment at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) with partners from six countries, including the Technical University of Munich (TUM), has taken up as the world´s most sensitive scale for neutrinos. It makes use of the beta decay of tritium, an unstable hydrogen isotope, to determine the mass of the neutrino via the energy distribution of electrons released in the decay process.

This necessitates a major technological effort: the 70 meter long experiment houses the world´s most intense tritium source as well as a giant spectrometer to measure the energy of decay electrons with unprecedented precision.

Data analysis

The high quality of the data after starting scientific measurements in 2019 has continuously been improved over the last two years. “KATRIN is an experiment with the highest technological requirements and is now running like perfect clockwork”, enthuses Guido Drexlin (KIT), the project leader and one of the two co-spokespersons of the experiment. Christian Weinheimer (University of Münster), the other co-spokesperson, adds that “the increase of the signal rate and the reduction of background rate were decisive for the new result.”

The in-depth analysis of this data was demanding everything from the international analysis team led by its two coordinators, Susanne Mertens (Max Planck Institute for Physics and TU Munich) and Magnus Schlösser (KIT). Each and every effect, no matter how small, had to be investigated in detail.

“Only by this laborious and intricate method we were able to exclude a systematic bias of our result due to distorting processes. We are particularly proud of our analysis team which successfully took up this huge challenge with great commitment”, the two analysis coordinators are pleased to report. 

New upper limit for the neutrino mass

The experimental data from the first year of measurements and the modeling based on a vanishingly small neutrino mass match perfectly: from this, a new upper limit on the neutrino mass of 0.8 eV* can be determined. This is the first time that a direct neutrino mass experiment has entered the cosmologically and particle-physically important sub-eV mass range, where the fundamental mass scale of neutrinos is suspected to be.

“The particle physics community is excited that the 1-eV-barrier has been broken by KATRIN”, comments neutrino expert John Wilkerson (University of North Carolina, Chair of the Executive Board).

Susanne Mertens, professor of dark matter at TUM, explains the path to the new record: “Our team at the MPP in Munich has developed a new analysis method for KATRIN that is specially optimized for the requirements of this high-precision measurement. This strategy has been successfully used for past and current results. My group is highly motivated: We will continue to meet the future challenges of KATRIN analysis with new creative ideas and meticulous accuracy.”

Further measurements should improve sensitivity

The co-spokespersons and analysis coordinators of KATRIN are very optimistic about the future: “Further measurements of the neutrino mass will continue until the end of 2024. To realize the full potential of this unique experiment, we will not only steadily increase the statistics of signal events, we are continuously developing and installing improvements to further lower the background rate." 

The development of a new detector system (TRISTAN) plays a specific role in this, allowing KATRIN from 2025 on to embark on a search for "sterile" neutrinos with masses in the kiloelectronvolt-range, a candidate for the mysterious dark matter in the cosmos that has already manifested itself in many astrophysical and cosmological observations, but whose particle-physical nature is still unknown.

Das 70 Meter lange KATRIN-Experiment mit seinen Hauptkomponenten Tritiumquelle, Hauptspektrometer und Detektor. Joachim Wolf / KIT
The 70 meter long KATRIN experiment with its main components tritium source, main spectrometer and detector.

Direct neutrino-mass measurement with sub-eV sensitivity
KATRIN Collaboration
Nature Physics, Feb. 14, 2022 – DOI: 10.1038/s41567-021-01463-1

Further information and links

This work was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the Helmholtz Association (HGF), the Helmholtz Alliance for Astroparticle Physics (HAP), the doctoral school KSETA at KIT, and the Helmholtz Young Investigator Group as well as the Max Planck Research Group (Max-Planck@TUM) in Germany, the US Department of Energy and the Federal Prime Agreement in the United States, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation, and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport of the Czech Republic.

Computing time has provided by the Institute for Astroparticle Physics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the Max Planck Computing and Data Facility (MPCDF), and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

* According to Albert Einstein's formula, E=mc2, 0.8 eV corresponds to a mass of 1.4*10-36 kg.

Technical University of Munich

Corporate Communications Center

Contacts to this article:

Prof. Dr. Susanne Mertens
Professorship of Dark Matter
Technical University of Munich and
Max Planck Institute for Physics
Tel.: +49 89 3235 4262 (TUM) – +49 89 32354 590 (MPP)
E-Mail: susanne.mertensspam prevention@tum.de

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