The COHERENT collaboration at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the US has detected coherent elastic scattering of neutrinos off nuclei for the first time. The ability to harness this process, predicted 43 years ago, offers new ways to study neutrino properties and could drastically reduce the scale of neutrino detectors.

Neutrinos famously interact very weakly, requiring very large volumes of active material to detect their presence. Typically, neutrinos interact with individual protons or neutrons inside a nucleus, but coherent elastic neutrino-nucleus scattering (CEνNS) occurs when a neutrino interacts with an entire nucleus. For this to occur, the momentum exchanged must remain significantly small compared to the nuclear size. This restricts the process to neutrino energies below a few tens of MeV, in contrast to the charged-current interactions by which neutrinos are usually detected. The signature of CEνNS is a low-energy nuclear recoil with all nucleon wavefunctions remaining in phase, but until now the difficulty in detecting these low-energy nuclear recoils has prevented observations of CEνNS – despite the predicted cross-section for this process being the largest of all low-energy neutrino couplings.

The COHERENT team, comprising 80 researchers from 19 institutions, used ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), which generates the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world while simultaneously creating a significant yield of low-energy neutrinos. Approximately 5 × 1020 protons are delivered per day, each returning roughly 0.08 isotropically emitted neutrinos per flavour. The researchers placed a detector, a caesium-iodide scintillator crystal doped with sodium, 20 m from the neutrino source with shielding to reduce background events associated with the neutron-induced nuclear recoils produced from the SNS. The results favour the presence of CEνNS over its absence at the 6.7σ level, with 134±22 events observed versus 173±48 predicted.

Crucially, the result was achieved using the world’s smallest neutrino detector, with a mass of 14.5 kg. This is a consequence of the large nuclear mass of caesium and iodine, which results in a large CEνNS cross-section.

The intense scintillation of this material for low-energy nuclear recoils, combined with the large neutrino flux of the SNS, also contributed to the success of the measurement. In effect, CEνNS allows the same detection rates as conventional neutrino detectors that are 100 times more massive.

“It is a nearly ideal detector choice for coherent neutrino scattering,” says lead designer Juan Collar of the University of Chicago. “However, other new coherent neutrino-detector designs are appearing over the horizon that look extraordinarily promising in order to further reduce detector mass, truly realising technological applications such as reactor monitoring.”

Yoshi Uchida of Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study, says that detecting neutrinos via the neutral-current process as opposed to the usual charged-current process is a great advantage because it is “blind” to the type of neutrino being produced and is sensitive at low energies. “So in combination with other types of detection, it could tell us a lot about a particular neutrino source of interest.” However, he adds that the SNS set-up is very specific and that, outside such ideal conditions, it might be difficult to scale a similar detector in a way that would be of practical use. “The fact that the COHERENT collaboration already has several other target nuclei (and detection methods) being used in their set-up means there will be more to come on this subject in the near future.”