Physics & Astronomy ETDs

Publication Date



The nature of dark matter, which comprises 85% of the matter density in the universe, is a major outstanding question in physics today. The standard hypothesis is that the dark matter is a new weakly interacting massive particle, which is present throughout the galaxy. These particles could interact within detectors on Earth, producing low-energy nuclear recoils. Two distinctive signatures arise from the solar motion through the galaxy. The DRIFT experiment aims to measure one of these, the directional signature that is based on the sidereal modulation of the nuclear recoil directions. Although DRIFT has demonstrated its capability for detecting this signature, it has been plagued by a large number of backgrounds that have limited its reach. The focus of this thesis is on characterizing these backgrounds and describing techniques that have essentially eliminated them. The background events in the DRIFT-IId detector are predominantly caused by alpha decays on the central cathode in which the alpha particle is completely or partially absorbed by the cathode material. This thesis describes the installation a 0.9 μm thick aluminized-mylar cathode as a way to reduce the probability of producing these backgrounds. We study three generations of cathode (wire, thin-film, and radiologically clean thin-film) with a focus on identifying and quantifying the sources of alpha decay backgrounds, as well as their contributions to the background rate in the detector. This in-situ study is based on alpha range spectroscopy and the determination of the absolute alpha detection efficiency. The results for the final radiologically clean version of the cathode give a contamination of 3.3 ± 0.1 ppt 234U and 73 ± 2 ppb 238U, and an efficiency for rejecting an RPR from an alpha decay that is a factor 70 ± 20 higher than for the original wire cathode. Along with other background reduction measures, the thin-film cathode has reduced the observed background rate from 130/day to 1.7/day in the DRIFT experiment. The complete elimination of the remaining RPR backgrounds requires fiducialization of the detector along the drift direction. We describe two methods for doing this: one involving the detection of positive ions at the cathode, and the other using multiple species of charge carriers with variable drift speeds. With the recent successful implementation of the latter technique, the DRIFT experiment has run background-free for 46 days.

Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name

Physics & Astronomy

First Committee Member (Chair)

Snowden-Ifft, Daniel

Second Committee Member

Matthews, John

Third Committee Member

Gold, Michael




DRIFT, Dark Matter, WIMP, Alpha, TPC, NITPC, Radon, Uranium, Assay

Document Type