A reactor at a power plant in Illinois is helping University of Chicago scientists learn to capture and understand tiny, elusive particles known as neutrinos.

At the Dresden Constellation Power Plant in Morris, Illinois, a team of scientists used a tiny detector to make the first measurements of neutrinos from a nuclear reactor. These particles are extremely difficult to capture because they rarely interact with matter, but power reactors are one of the few places on Earth with a high concentration of them.

“It was an exciting opportunity to benefit from the huge production of neutrinos in the reactor, but also a challenge in the noisy industrial environment next to the reactor. This is the closest neutrino physicists have been able to get to the core of a commercial reactor. We got a unique experience of operating the detector in these conditions thanks to the generosity of Constellation, which provided us with all the conditions for our experiment, – said Professor Juan Collar, a particle physicist who led the study.

With this knowledge, the team plans to take additional measurements that could provide answers to questions about the fundamental laws that govern particle-nucleus interactions.

This technique could also be useful for nuclear nonproliferation because neutrinos can tell scientists what’s going on in the reactor core. Detectors can be placed next to the reactors as a guarantee to control whether the reactor is being used for power generation or weapons production.

Neutrinos are sometimes called “ghost particles” because they pass invisibly through almost all matter. But if you can catch them, they can tell you about what is happening where they come from and about the basic properties of the universe.

In particular, scientists would like to know about specific aspects of the behavior of neutrinos – whether they have electromagnetic properties (for example, a “magnetic moment”) and whether they interact with as yet unknown particles hiding from our attention, or in a new way with known particles. Making extensive measurements of as many neutrinos as possible can help narrow these possibilities.

The need for many neutrinos attracted Kollar’s group to nuclear reactors.

“Commercial reactors are the largest source of neutrinos on Earth by several orders of magnitude. During normal operation, nuclear reactors produce an astronomical amount of neutrinos per second. They occur when the atoms inside the reactor break down into lighter elements and release some of the energy in the form of neutrinos,” the scientist noted.