Author Archives: Laura Baudis

Lowering the radioactivity of the XENON1T photosensors

E. Aprile et al (XENON Collaboration), Lowering the radioactivity of the XENON1T photosensors, arXiv:1503.07698, Eur. Phys. J. C75 (2015) 11, 546.

The XENON1T experiment employs 242 photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) in the time projection chamber, arranged into two circular arrays. Because the overall background goal of the detector is incredibly low, with less than 1 expected event in a tonne of liquid xenon and one full year of data, the PMTs must be made out of ultra-pure materials. These materials were selected for their content in traces of 238-U, 232-Th, 40-K, 60-Co, 137-Cs and other long-lived radionuclides.

The XENON collaboration joined efforts with Hamamatsu to produce a photosensor that meets the strict requirements of our experiment. The sensor is a 3-inch diameter tube that operates stably at -100 C and at a pressure of 2 atmospheres. It has a high quantum efficiency, with a mean around 35%, for the xenon scintillation light at 178 nm and 90% photon collection efficiency.

PMT_schematicsThe sensor, shown schematically in the left picture, features a VUV-transparent quartz window, with a low-temperature bi-alkali photocathode deposited on it. A 12-dynode electron multiplication system ensures a signal amplification of ~3 millions, which is a crucial feature to detect the tiny signals induced by the rare collisions of dark matter particles with xenon nuclei.

Before the tubes were ready to be manufactured, the construction materials were inspected with gamma-ray spectroscopy and glow-discharge mass spectroscopy (GDMS). For the former, we employed the world’s most sensitive high-purity germanium detectors, GeMPI and Gator, operated deep underground at the Gran Sasso Laboratory. GDMS can detect trace impurities in solid samples and the results were compatible with those from germanium screening. We measured many samples to select the final materials for the PMT production. As an example, specific 226-Ra activities around or below 0.3 mBq/PMT were seen in most of the inspected materials. Such an activity corresponds to 3 x 10-4 226-Ra decays per second and tube, or about 26 decays per day.

BarChart_blogThe relative contribution of the selected materials to the trace contaminations in U, Th, K, Co and Cs of the final product, seen in the left picture, also tells us how to improve further sensor versions for the XENONnT upgrade. Most of the nuclides in the 238-U and 232-Th chains, especially dangerous for their emission of alpha particles, that can the produce fast neutrons in (alpha,n) reactions, are located in the ceramic stem of the tube. In consequence, finding a new material to replace the ceramic might drastically improve the background expectations.

pmts_gatorOnce the final production started, and the tubes were delivered in several batches to our collaboration, they were measured in the Gator detector. Its inner chamber can accommodate 15 PMTs at a time, as seen in the left picture. Each batch was screened for about 15 days, and theobserved activities were mostly consistent from batch to batch. For all measured PMTs, we obtain contaminations in uranium and thorium below 1 mBq/PMT. While 60-Co was at the level of 0.8 mBq/PMT, 40-K dominates the gamma activity with about 13 mBq/PMT. The information from screening was considered in the final arrangement of the PMTs in the XENON1T arrays. PMTs with somewhat higher activities are placed in the outer rings, where they are more distant from the central, fiducial xenon region of the detector.

The average activities per PMT of all trace isotopes served as input contaminations to a full Monte Carlo simulation of the expected backgrounds in XENON1T. The results show that the PMTs will provide about 1% and 6% of the total electronic and recoil background of the experiment, respectively. We can therefore safely conclude that the overall radioactivity of the sensors is sufficiently low, and they will certainly not limit the dark matter sensitivity of the XENON1T experiment.

First assembly and cold tests of the XENON1T time projection chamber

The XENON1T TPC is the largest of its kind, being about 1 m high and 1 m in diameter. It is to house more than 2 tons of xenon in liquid form, and consists of two photomultiplier (PMT) arrays, a field cage, Teflon reflectors, top and bottom support rings and electrode grids. The field cage is made of Teflon pillars that support 74 copper field shaping rings, connected via two resistor chains. The field shaping rings, optimised via detailed electrostatic field simulations, have rounded edges and are to ensure a highly uniform drift field for electrons over the whole volume of the TPC, designed to be 1 kV/cm. The inner surfaces of the Teflon reflectors are shiny, polished with a special diamond tool, to maximally reflect the 178 nm scintillation photons, and thus to optimise the overall light yield of the dark matter detector.

During a few sunny weeks in September 2015, a major part of the TPC, including the two support rings, the field cage, the reflectors and the bottom PMT array (without PMTs, consisting of a large copper and two Teflon structures), was carefully assembled in a high bay laboratory on Campus Irchel at the University of Zurich. The main goals were to rehearse the assembly procedure before the final installation work under clean room conditions, to discover and fix any potential small imperfections, and to slowly cool down the entire structure to -100 C, the planned operational temperature of the detector.


The picture shows members of the XENON team at the University of Zurich, immersed in the assembly work. The copper field shaping rings, a few connecting resistors, the Teflon pillars, the top and bottom support rings as well as the empty PMT array can be seen. Because the final top support ring, made out of stainless steel, was not yet available at this time, an aluminium mock up version was used.

The tests proceeded smoothly, apart from a minor design issue with the reflectors, that was carefully fixed by the Zurich workshop team within a few days. After all parts were assembled, and the reflectors, which are long, interlocking Teflon panels, were inserted into their final positions, the TPC was lifted with a crane with the help of a support structure attached to the top aluminium ring, as seen in the second picture. It was first moved to the side, then slowly immersed into a large, empty stainless steel dewar that could easily house the entire TPC.

Now the cold tests could finally start. The temperature inside the dewar was lowered over more than 14 hours to -100 C, and kept stable within 2%. Besides the slow rate of cooling down, a uniform temperature across the TPC was essential to prevent any non-uniform contractions of materials. This was achieved with cold nitrogen gas, four fans and two heaters placed on the bottom of the dewar, below a heavy aluminium support plate. It was monitored with 10 sensors, placed at various heights: 4 on the Teflon pillars, 4 in the middle of the TPC, inside the nitrogen gas, and 2 on the bottom of the dewar. As expected, the whole TPC had contracted by about 1.4% once it reached the final, low temperature. After a slow warm up period to room temperature, the initial dimensions were regained, and no structural damages could be observed.

TPC_lifting_UZHOn a foggy, cold morning at the end of September, the whole structure was disassembled again. The components parted in various directions: the PMT array to MPIK Heidelberg where the PMTs are to be installed, the Teflon structures to Münster where they will be cleaned in a dedicated facility, and the copper rings directly to the Gran Sasso laboratory. All parts will be thoroughly cleaned using dedicated recipes for each type of material, to avoid radioactive impurities on, or just below the surfaces, making it into the detector. They will finally come together in a clean room above ground at Gran Sasso, to be assembled into what will soon become the core of the XENON1T experiment.