News Release

9.3 million euros to investigate the origin of the universe

Researchers from DIPC, UPV/EHU and Ikerbasque, with the participation of Harvard University, obtain the first ERC Synergy for the Basque Country

Grant and Award Announcement

University of the Basque Country

In 2007, the European Commission created the European Research Council (ERC) with the aim of promoting excellent basic science in Europe, supporting the best researchers in all fields and of any nationality who wish to continue their research at the frontiers of knowledge. The ERC funds prestigious projects that seek to develop innovative and high-risk research. Since its creation, the ERC has had a substantial impact on the European research landscape.

Of all the grants awarded by the European Research Council, the ERC Synergy is the most competitive, with a success rate of less than 10%. Its purpose is to enable a small group of principal investigators and their teams to bring together complementary skills, knowledge and resources in a novel way to jointly address major research challenges.

In words of Fernando Cossio, "in science, the most complicated thing is to ask a big question that is difficult, but not impossible to answer". In this sense, Juan José Gómez Cadenas has said that "for me it has two extremely positive aspects: on the one hand, getting an ERC Synergy provides the necessary resources to tackle what I consider the most important scientific challenge of my career. On the other hand, it allows me to firmly establish a new interdisciplinary line, developed in collaboration with Fernando Cossio in the Basque Country. I have the curious notion of feeling a connection between the team formed by Fernando and myself and the Elhuyar brothers. Hopefully, we can aspire to make a discovery as significant as theirs".

Synergy-2020 NEXT-BOLD project

According to the philosopher and mathematician Leibnitz, the fundamental question is Why does something exist instead of nothing? Today, this question is formulated in more specific terms: Why is our universe made of matter? Why does everything exist as we know it? This brings us to one of the most important unsolved problems in particle physics, and thus in chemistry. This problem is that of the nature of the neutrino, which could be its own antiparticle, as the unfortunate Italian genius Ettore Majorana ventured almost a century ago. If this were so, it could explain the mysterious cosmic asymmetry between matter and antimatter.

Indeed, we know that the Universe is made almost exclusively of matter. However, the Big Bang theory predicts that the early Universe contained the same amount of matter and antimatter particles. This prediction is consistent with the "small Big Bangs" that form in proton collisions at CERN's giant LHC accelerator, where a symmetrical production of particles and antiparticles is always observed. So, where did the antimatter of the early Universe go? A possible mechanism points to the existence of heavy neutrinos that were its own antiparticle, and therefore, could decay into both matter and antimatter. After all the matter and antimatter in the Universe were annihilated (with the exception of a small excess), the result would be a cosmos made only of matter, of the leftovers from the Big Bang. We could say that our Universe is the remnant of a cosmic shipwreck.

It is possible to demonstrate that the neutrino is its own antiparticle by observing a rare type of nuclear process called neutrinoless double beta decay. This process can occur in some rare isotopes, such as xenon-136. The NEXT experiment --proposed by Gomez-Cadenas and co-led by Gomez-Cadenas and David Nygren, presidential chair at the University of Texas at Austin, looks for these decays using high pressure gas chambers.

So far, NEXT was focused on observing the characteristic signal emitted by the two electrons resulting in the mentioned decay, but this signal is extremely weak and could be eventually masked by the background noise due to the ubiquitous natural radioactivity. However, if in addition to observing the two electrons, the barium ionized atom, which is also one of the products of xenon disintegration, is detected, we would have the unequivocal signal we are looking for, and the experimental evidence that the neutrino is indeed its own antiparticle.

Therein lies precisely the challenge faced by the NEXT experiment, in identifying this single barium atom. The possibility was proposed by David Nygren in 2016 and the NEXT collaboration proposed a first proof of concept in 2017. In 2020, Cossio and Gómez-Cadenas led an interdisciplinary team which demonstrated the feasibility of a large-scale experiment based on a new type of molecules, capable of capturing the barium and provide an unmistakable signature (sifting their characteristic emission spectrum) when this occurs. The results were published in the prestigious journal Nature. But, in a recent collaboration between Fernando Cossio and Juan José Gómez Cadenas, published in the prestigious journal Nature, they have shown that it is possible to capture the barium atom with a molecule capable of forming a supramolecular complex with it and to provide a clear signal when this occurs.

The goal of the Synergy-2020 NEXT-BOLD project is to design, develop and build a new generation of the NEXT detector with the capability to detect the barium ion, based on a molecular fluorescent indicator and advanced microscopy techniques. This experiment would have a great potential to discover if the neutrino is its own antiparticle, which would allow to answer the fundamental questions about the origin of the universe.


Additional information

Ikerbasque - Basque Foundation for Science

IKERBASQUE is the result of an initiative by the Department of Education of the Basque Government that aims to reinforce the Basque scientific system through the attraction, recovery and retention of researchers from all around the world.

Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC)

DIPC is a research centre whose mission is to conduct and catalyse cutting-edge research in physics and related disciplines as well as to convey scientific culture to society. Located in Donostia / San Sebastian, DIPC was born from a strategic alliance between public institutions and private companies. Since 2008, DIPC is a 'Basque Excellence Research Center' (BERC) of the Department of Education of the Basque Government, and recently in 2019 it has been recognized as a "Severo Ochoa" Center of Excellence by the Spanish Research Agency.

Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (UPV/EHU)

The University of the Basque Country (Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea) is the main institution of higher education in the Basque Country and one of the most important in Spain in terms of quantity of teaching results, research, and technological innovation and development. It is currently listed among the 500 best universities in the world, according to the Shanghai ranking. The UPV/EHU is present in all the territories of the Basque Autonomous Region. It is a public university, with a research vocation, rooted in the Basque culture, open to the world, which develops an important intellectual leadership within the society in which it is embedded and with a clear ethical and social commitment. Three campuses, twenty study centers and a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs are its academic credentials. More than 50,000 people attend the university every day, including students, faculty and research and management staff, to carry out their work. The UPV/EHU has the status of Campus of International Excellence, awarded by the Ministry of Education after an independent assessment, and has fostered, in collaboration with the University of Bordeaux, DIPC and Tecnalia a cross-border campus that is unique in Europe.

Harvard University, EEUU

Established in 1636, Harvard University is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. It is one of the most influential universities in the world and is ranked number one in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of the World's Universities. Harvard is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. It has about 2,400 faculty members and more than 10,400 academic appointments in affiliated teaching hospitals. The honors received by Harvard's faculty include 49 Nobel Laureates, 32 heads of state, 48 Pulitzer Prize winners.

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