Wabash physics professor lands $424,000 NSF Grant

Will help to build fast-neutron detector


Wabash College Physics Professor James Brown has received a $424,670 grant from the National Science Foundation to help construct a new fast-neutron detector unique in the world of science.

This grant, through the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation program, is part of a shared research effort with the goal of constructing the next generation of fast-neutron detectors with members of the Modular Neutron Array.

“It is a great honor for our collaboration and provides a wonderful opportunity for Wabash students,” Brown said. “Wabash students will help build a detector system used to examine fundamental questions in nuclear science. In the process, they will gain skills and experiences that will help them in their careers. I look forward to the construction and testing of these new detectors, and to the exciting new physics we can explore with them.”

Brown and Wabash students will work with MoNA colleagues on this next-generation neutron detector with colleagues from Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a Department of Energy-funded laboratory. In addition to Wabash and MSU, participating institutions include Augustana College, Hope College, Indiana Wesleyan University, James Madison University and Virginia State University.

The MoNA collaboration constructed the first large array of fast-neutron detectors for use at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory in 2002, and subsequently added an updated array, known as LISA, in 2010, both with NSF funding. This array detects fast neutrons produced in nuclear reactions, identifying both the velocity and direction of the neutrons.

These detectors in East Lansing, Michigan, enabled the collaboration to explore nuclei as the “neutron dripline,” the most neutron-rich nuclei that nature allows to exist for fleeting milliseconds. Using plastic scintillator and silicon photomultipliers, the device detects when a fast neutron strikes a hydrogen nucleus in the detector and the recoiling proton travels through the plastic exciting molecules, causing it to emit light, similar to medical imaging methods like CT scans.

This grant allows current Wabash students to gain crucial exposure to cutting-edge research and learn technical skills useful in their future, such as detector testing, assembly, and computer programming.

More than 20 Wabash students have researched with Brown with many progressing to careers in nuclear sciences, including university teaching, medical physics, dark matter research and advanced computing.

A member of the Wabash faculty since 2003, Brown has secured more than $1 million in grant funding and has co-authored more than 40 research publications.