The Experimental Challenge

Measuring tiny amounts of light at cryogenic temperatures is very complicated and sets stringent requirements on the features of the desired light detector:

  • baseline resolution better than 20 eV;
  • large active surface (5x5cm2) for an efficient coupling with commonly used cryogenic detectors;
  • operation with high performance in a rather wide temperature range (5-15 mK) without need for fine-tuning;
  • ease in fabrication and reproducibility;
  • ease in operating hundreds of channels with low heat-load for the cryogenic system;

None of the current technologies for light detection fulfills all these requirements. The CALDER collaboration proposes to realize a new light detector by exploiting devices which have already been succesfully used in astrophysics: Kinetic Inductance Detectors (KIDs).

Kinetic Inductance Detectors

When a superconductor is biased with an AC current, Cooper pairs oscillate and acquire kinetic inductance LK. The superconductor can be inserted in an LC circuit with high merit factor, that acts as a resonator (blue plot). Interactions with energy larger than the binding energy of Cooper pairs (Δ0) can break them into quasiparticles, pruducing a variation of the kinetic inductance. The change in LK modifies the frequency and shape of the resonance (red plot). Thus, we can infer the energy of the interaction by monitoring the shape of the resonance. The binding energy of Cooper pairs is much lower than 1 meV, thus even small energy deposits can produce a signal.

Pros and Cons

The most important features of KIDs are:

  • the intrinsic energy resolution, which can be as low as few eV;
  • the natural aptitude to a frequency multiplexed read-out. Each detector can be designed to resonate at a slightly different frequency, thus hundreds of KIDs can be read-out with a single RF line and a cryogenic amplifier.
  • They are operated well below the superconductor critical temperature, where the quasiparticles lifetime and the internal quality factor saturare, leading to a stable detector behavior over a wide temperature range.
  • Most of the electronics is located at room-temperature, so the installation of KIDs array requires only minor modifications to the existing facilities.

Four KIDs resonating at different frequencies were read-out using a single feedline.

The only limit of these devices resides in their rather poor active area: future light detectors need a surface of several cm2, while the largest KIDs barely achieve few mm2. To overcome this limit, the CALDER collaboration is developing light detectors based on the phonon-mediated approach.

Phonon Mediation

An effective coupling with commonly used bolometers, that have surfaces of several cm2, requires large light detectors. Realizing a 5x5 cm2 detector with hundreds of KIDs of a few mm2 is not practicable, not only because of the too large number of devices (expecially for experiments that need hundreds of light detectors), but also because the emitted photons would barely interact in such a small device.

Nevertheless, KIDs can be used as sensors to probe a substrate that acts as mediator between the photon and the Cooper pairs. The photon interacts inside the (insulating) substrate producing phonons, that travel until they are absorbed by a KID or lost through the substrate supports/surfaces. Using phonons instead of the original photons decreases the efficiency in the collection of the impinging energy but, on the other hand, allows to exploit much larger active surfaces.

The goal of CALDER is to demostrate that this approach guarantees the realization of sensitive cryogenic light detectors. The first project phase foresees the optimization of the light detectors in the cryogenic facility of the Sapienza/INFN laboratory (Rome, Italy). In the second phase we will couple the optimized device to an array of TeO2 crystals, that are characterized by a very small light output, to test the performance of our detectors in the final configuration. This project phase will be carried out at Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso (L'Aquila, Italy).

First Prototypes

For the first prototypes, we decided to exploit a commonly used material for KIDs: Aluminum. This superconductor is not the most sensitive (its transition temperature is of about 1.2K), but it is well known and it is rather simple to handle for KIDs applications. We started by depositing a 40 nm thick single pixel on a 2x2 cm2 Silicon substrate. With this prototype, that features an active surface of 2.0x1.4 mm2, we achieved a baseline resolution of about 130 eV and an average efficiency of about 5% (using a non-collimated X-rays source).

Aluminum pixels (active surface = 2.0x1.4 mm2, thickness = 40 nm) deposited on a Silicon substrate (area = 2x2 cm2, thickness 300µm). The substrate is held in position in a copper holder using teflon elements. Left: single pixel prototype. Right: 4-pixels prototype.

We reproduced the same design in a 4-pixel array, proving that the efficiency can be increased up to 18% without loss in energy resolution.

Finally, we optimized the geometry of the resonator, by enlarging the active area of almost a factor of 2 and by increasing the quality factor of the resonator up to 150x103. These improvements allowed to reach the goal of the first project phase: as shown in our last paper (ArXiv link), we could obtain a baseline resolution of about 80 eV RMS using a single resonator.

Next Steps

All the prototypes characterized up to now show an excess in the low-frequency noise, that limits the energy resolution of the detectors. We are performing tests to determine the origin of this noise source and, eventually, suppress it.

In parallel with the aforementioned activities, we are investigating different, more sensitive superconductors. The first prototypes made with TiN are now being tested in the cryogenic facility in Roma.