Monthly Archives: February 2014

Axions as Cold Dark Matter

WIMP (weakly interacting massive particle) searches have been getting more frustrating. The LHC, as of yet, has found no evidence for supersymmetric extensions to the Standard Model for particle physics. The least massive supersymmetric particle, if it exists, is a favored WIMP candidate. But detection limits on WIMPs from several experiments are becoming more severe, and are in conflict with other possible or claimed detections. One way out of this quandary may be that there is more than one type of WIMP particle responsible for dark matter (prior blog).

Or perhaps the dominant dark matter constituent is not a WIMP at all. Baryons (ordinary matter) only contribute 1/5 of the total mass, and only 5% of the total mass-energy of the universe. The dark matter component cannot be baryons – this is ruled out by the abundances of deuterium, helium, and lithium generated via nucleosynthesis during the first few minutes of the Big Bang.

Dark matter must be “cold” that is, moving at low to moderate speeds, based on the way galaxies are distributed and cluster together. If dark matter is not due to baryons and not due to WIMPs, what other alternative is there? Neutrinos and other known light particles are ruled out by observations.

But there is another light particle, the axion, which has not been observed, yet is a good candidate as a “weakly interacting light particle” explanation for dark matter. Axions do not require the existence of supersymmetry. They have a strong theoretical basis in the Standard Model as an outgrowth of the necessity to have charge conjugation plus parity conserved in the strong nuclear force (quantum chromodynamics of quarks, gluons). This conservation property is known as CP-invariance. (While CP-invariance holds for the strong force, the weak force is CP violating).

The neutron, composed of three quarks, is observed to have no electric dipole moment, to very high accuracy, indicating CP-invariance holds for the strong force. An additional mechanism (field) is required to “enforce” the invariance. Initial theoretical work was done by Nobel winning physicists Weinberg and Wilczek in the 1970s. The axion is the corresponding particle for this field, providing the favored explanation for allowing the preservation of CP-invariance.

The axion, if it exists, has a very low mass, in the range of over 1 micro-eV to as much as 10 milli-eV. (One eV, or electron-Volt is the energy from moving one electron through a potential of one Volt). By comparison, electron neutrino masses are less than 2 eV, but axions are probably a thousand or more times lighter than the elusive neutrino.


Installation of the insert chamber into the magnet of the ADMX, October 4, 2013.

The Axion Dark Matter Experiment (ADMX) at the University of Washington is the best known experiment searching for axions as a principal component of dark matter. It relies on the prediction that axions can be converted to photons in the presence of a magnetic field. A well-designed experiment requires a large microwave cavity at very low temperature to minimize noise, and with a strong magnetic field. ADMX consists of a microwave cavity surrounded by an 8 Tesla magnet and cooled to liquid helium temperatures.

ADMX has not yet detected axions, but it has placed limits on their interaction cross-section for masses in the range of about 2 to 3 micro-eV. These limits are consistent with the two most popular theoretical models. The ADMX team is in the process of upgrading the apparatus to a sensitivity that would allow them to detect axions if they adhere to one of the two main axion dark matter models, and have mass less than 10 micro-eV. They are scheduled to be able to reach this goal by the end of 2015.

Another interesting possibility is that 110 micro-eV axions may explain an anomalous signal seen in an experiment with Josephson junctions, and thus are already detected. Josephson junctions consist of two superconducting elements separated by an insulating layer. If the axion mass is resonant with the junction frequency, a current spike would occur. An exceptionally high noise spike in one such prior experiment could conceivably be due to an axion resonance signal. We await further experiments to see if the behavior can be repeated at the same frequency.

And for fun, here’s an historical perspective on the axion, from the 1960s, featuring Arthur Godfrey:


References: – ADMX web site – talk by Gray Rybka from the ADMX team – Josephson junction anomaly