QuarkNetter Reports: The Fermilab Detector

The Fermilab detector has been under continuous development for some time. Development started a few years ago when Jeff Rylander, then a Fermilab TRAC teacher and now a QuarkNet lead teacher at Argonne National Laboratory, developed a muon lifetime experiment using a single counter—a scintillator mated to a photomultiplier tube (PMT)—and an analog-to-digital data acquisition (DAQ) board designed by Sten Hansen of Fermilab. These sent digital signals to a computer where they were read in hyperterminal and transferred to a spreadsheet for analysis.

In 1999 QuarkNet lead teacher Ed Pascuzzi (SUNY-Stony Brook) picked up the thread while working at Fermilab for the summer. With Sten Hansen's help and money from his school district, Ed built a working muon lifetime experiment to use with his students.

At the same time, the University of Rochester QuarkNet Center (mentor Kevin McFarland and lead teachers Susen Clark and Paul Pavone) developed a muon counting experiment using the same DAQ board and two scintillators. One main activity of the 2000 Associate Teacher Institute was to build a large number of these detectors for classrooms in Rochester-area high schools.

Tom Jordan and his colleagues have continued the development of both the original DAQ and the experiment at Fermilab. They have added an LED readout and low-voltage power supply to the board, and they have added Cockroft-Walton bases to the PMTs. The Cockcroft-Walton base converts the low-voltage ouput from the board to the very high voltages needed to operate the PMTs. These improvements made the detector portable. You can operate it with batteries or a car cigarette lighter. Teachers at the 2001 Lead Teacher Institute assembled this type of muon telescope successfully. The experiment was repeated at the 2001 Fermilab Weekend with good results.
Here's how the system works. Plastic or glass scintillator is mated using optical glue and shaped fittings to PMTs. The scintillators are covered with reflective material (aluminum foil works) and then with black paper and tape to make them "light-tight."They are hooked up to the DAQ which feeds into the parallel port of a computer. When a cosmic ray muon passes through the scintillator, it causes a few photons to be emitted by impurities in the scintillator material. These are picked up by the PMTs, converted to an electrical pulse and amplified. Each PMT sends its signal to the DAQ.
Muon Counting Experiment
When counting muons, the DAQ looks for "coincidences"—two signals (one from each PMT) which are received within a very short time. These are reported to the computer; all other signals are vetoed as likely noise from the PMTs. The computer can count the number of muons that come in over an interval to get a rate count.

Muon Lifetime Experiment
Some muons will be of low energy and will lose that energy in the scintillator. Such a muon will remain there for a short time until it decays into an electron and two neutrinos. We cannot detect the neutrinos, but we can detect the electron as it causes a few more photons to be emitted by impurities in the scintillator material. The DAQ measures the time between the "muon signal"and the "electron signal." These double hits and their time intervals are reported to the computer. The data can be fed into a spreadsheet and analyzed to calculate the lifetime of the muon.

If you'd like to assemble a Fermilab detector, here's what you ought to do:

There are drawbacks. This detector is like a science experiment—in progress.




Technical Information:

Users Manual all you need to know and more
Instructions for set-up and use at the University of Rochester QuarkNet Center

Sources for scintillator and other materials:
Eljen Technology

Tom Jordan has a great deal of practical experience setting up and using the Fermilab detector.

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