Scientists Built an Ingenious Trap to Catch Dark Matter. We're About to See If It Worked.

dark matter
This Experiment Hopes to 'Trap' Dark Mattertolokonov - Getty Images
  • Although dark matter and dark energy make up an estimated 95 percent of matter in the universe, scientists have never observed them directly.

  • A new experiment underway at the University of Nottingham aims to create a dark matter “trap” that attempts to study domain walls, or dark walls, according to the theory of scalar fields.

  • The experiment took up to three years to complete, and the scientists hope to have results within a year.


The Standard Model of Physics is our best bet on describing how, well, everything works. Thanks to major upgrades from Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to the discovery of the Higgs boson, the model does wonders when describing the universe in which we reside—that is, except for dark matter and dark energy.

And that’s a pretty big caveat. Scientists estimate that these two concepts (which we’ve never detected) actually make up 95 percent of all matter in the universe. That means all our expensive optical telescopes, radio arrays, interplanetary rovers, and any other spacecraft or instruments well into the future will only glimpse a mere fraction of the universe’s matter.

However, we’ve been able to infer the existence of this mysterious stuff based on its believed gravitational effect on visible matter, and now, scientists from the University of Nottingham built a “trap” designed to get a closer look at this ever-elusive concept.

In a new study published in the journal Physical Review D, scientists from the University of Nottingham introduced a particle known as a scalar field and constructed a trap to detect an effect of dark matter called domain walls, or dark walls. Professor at the University of Nottingham and lead author Clare Burrage explains:

“As density is lowered defects form—this is similar to when water freezes into ice, water molecules are random and when they freeze you get a crystal structure with molecules lined up at random, with some lined up one way and some another and this creates fault lines. Something similar happens in scalar fields as the density gets lower. You can’t see these fault lines by eye but if particles pass across them it might change their trajectory. These defects are dark walls and can prove the theory of scalar fields.”

Basically, if these designed traps could detect the dark walls, it would provide major evidence of the theory of scalar fields.

To set up this experiment, the team created 3D printed vessels specifically designed to “trap” dark walls, according to theoretical calculations. To “spring” the trap, scientists will cool down lithium atoms to near absolute zero using laser photons and place them in a special vacuum that mimics a change in density, as Burrage describes. If all things go according to plan, these “fault lines” within scalar fields should be trapped in the experiment.

“The 3D printed vessels we are using as the vacuum chamber have been constructed using theoretical calculations of Dark Walls, this has created what we believed to be the ideal shape, structure and texture to trap the dark matter,” University of Nottingham’s Lucia Hackermueller, who designed the experiment, said in a press statement. “To successfully demonstrate that dark walls have been trapped, we will let a cold atom cloud pass through those walls.”

This entire experiment took three years to build, and the team hopes to have results from the elaborately designed trap within the year.

Of course, it’s also possible that no dark walls appear at all. However, in the world of science, either outcome pushes our understanding of the mysterious forces that form the foundation of the known universe, because discovering what dark matter and dark energy isn’t can also be immensely valuable.

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