Newswise — What is dark matter? For many, it’s something that’s straight out of a science fiction novel or a "Star Trek" episode. However, for scientists, the exact definition of dark matter remains just that: dark. Dark matter doesn’t emit or interact with light or electromagnetism of any type. It’s not tangible, nor can it be seen.

However, while we may not be able to actually see it, that doesn’t mean we aren’t making headway into significant medical breakthroughs. Dr. Drew Alton, associate professor of physics at Augustana, says this specific research may not make an immediate effect upon our daily lives, but the long-term impact may eventually prove beneficial for many.

Some of the research on dark matter being conducted now can be applied to improving future PET [positron emission tomography] detectors, which offer imaging scans that allow doctors to check for diseases in the human body. Dr. Alton says that “using a small version of the PET detectors can be used to study structures in peoples’ brains and other body parts” and these types can be more efficient than current detectors, which would allow for fewer radioactive materials when examining patients.

Recently, Dr. Alton was part of a group of 150 U.S. and international collaborators who focused research on Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Abruzzo, Italy. The lab is the largest underground research center in the world and it is well-known for its particle physics research by the National Institute for Nuclear Physics. In order to conduct the research, the collaboration constructed a detector—that took over a year—which contained approximately 50 kgs of ultra-pure argon. These detectors are devices used to sense, track, and/or identify ionizing particles that are produced in nuclear decay, cosmic radiation or reactions in a particle accelerator. The detector was operated almost 24/7/365 for three years to gather 600 days of data. While they didn’t find any evidence of dark matter, the experiment is still a success because they were able to demonstrate that technology can operate background-free for long periods of time – in this case, years.

Dr. Alton says the evidence collected to date on dark matter is done through “gravitational effects.”  He adds that in the early universe dark matter formed seed bumps of matter in order to form galaxies.                               

So, how do scientists study something that is inherently not visible? According to, roughly 80 percent of the universe’s mass is made up of material that scientists can’t observe. The only way we know it exists is the way it distorts gravity and orbits the center of our galaxy. However, what is known to scientists is baryonic matter, which is composed of protons and neutrons.

Based on the successful operation for extended time and that this technology can operate background free, the collaboration has proposed a larger detector. The project involves extracting 20 tons of argon from an underground gas well. Extracting it this way reduces a radioactive isotope that exists in normal atmospheric argon. The 800-times larger mass will allow the experiment to operate for a day and exceed their sensitivity from their previous 600-day run. The project will cost $20 million and the National Science Foundation has already approved funding a portion of the project, while the Italian government has agreed to fund approximately $12 million. The collaboration is attempting to find additional overall funding for the project.

Advances in science and medicine are always at the forefront of mankind’s research, but funding is always a roadblock without an immediate application. Dr. Alton says that while “the NSF doesn’t give us as much money as we want, funding has been good enough to keep participating” in this project. NSF grants will make it possible for the project to remain funded for the next four years, allowing students and researchers like Dr. Alton to continue making headway. Last summer, two full-time students and a part-time student worked on this project.