These minuscule, nearly weightless, swift particles generated during nuclear fusion events that fuel the sun and stars can address fundamental physics issues. The research also enhances regional knowledge about radon – a material posing a health risk in the gold mining sector. Goitse Ramonnye, a physics student from the University of the Western Cape (UWC), will graduate in absentia after securing a position at the Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG) in the Netherlands. Her Master’s project is associated with nEXO, an experiment aimed at exploring extremely rare nuclear decays that involve neutrinos.
Ramonnye is the inaugural UWC student to graduate as a member of this partnership. Her research was conducted at UWC and focused on assessing radon gas, a naturally occurring background radioactive substance that interferes with neutrino measurements. Professor Robbie Lindsay of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UWC said that the university’s radon expertise is valuable in this area. Ramonnye’s thesis evaluated the effectiveness of current equipment in measuring radon and identified where improvements are needed.
Ramonnye is the first UWC graduate associated with nEXO – a massive international collaboration that the UWC Physics Department has joined. This $250 million endeavor seeks to discover a unique nuclear decay that would revolutionize physics if found. The nEXO experiment will examine rare decays in 4000 kg of liquid Xenon at SNOLAB, a 2km-deep underground science facility specializing in neutrino and dark matter physics, connected to a Canadian nickel mine.
Multiple UWC students are participating in the nEXO project and have conducted research at some of the world’s leading universities and institutes, including Stanford University and SNOLAB. Professor Lindsay mentioned that Ramonnye’s work will enhance radon understanding and measurement accuracy. Led by Prof Smarajit Triambak and Prof Lindsay, the South African Research Chair in Nuclear Physics at UWC, her research also encompasses radon assessments at Steenkampskraal – a mine being redeveloped near Vanrhynsdorp.
Ramonnye, a 27-year-old from Luka, a small village in Rustenburg within the North West province, expressed her appreciation for the international research exchange opportunity from the Netherlands. “Participating or working globally is a lifestyle for me. I am passionate about research. I am thrilled that my research will contribute to the knowledge pool and promote progress in this area,” she stated. “The power of this study stems from the entire nEXO project. I am pleased to contribute to more top-notch fundamental physics research and innovation.”
More About Neutrinos
Neutrinos originate from intense astrophysical occurrences like supernovae and gamma ray bursts, are plentiful in the cosmos, and can traverse lead as effortlessly as we move through air. Neutrinos are members of the lepton particle family, which are subject to the weak force governing certain radioactive decay processes. Significant physics breakthroughs are rare, but when they happen, they greatly impact civilization.
Science informs us that everything, at a small scale, consists of atoms composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. However, neutrons and protons are not elementary, and a neutron outside an atom can decay into a proton and an electron. The subsequent puzzle was that energy seemed to vanish in this process. A correct prediction was that another particle is produced during this process. This particle is the elusive neutrino, which barely interacts and is notoriously difficult to study.
Neutrinos are extremely lightweight particles generated in vast quantities during solar reactions. Nonetheless, terrestrial measurements did not detect as many neutrinos as anticipated. After numerous meticulous experiments, physicists discovered that neutrinos exist in three distinct forms and can transform from one “flavor” to another. This enigma surrounding neutrinos’ nature has led to several major global collaborations aimed at determining if and where the “standard model” of physics is flawed. Researchers are going to great lengths to unravel this mystery: The ICECUBE experiment in Antarctica measures neutrinos from outer space within a cubic kilometer containing hundreds of detectors. Meanwhile, nEXO will employ tons of liquid Xenon in a vast underground laboratory.