Identity of dark matter remains a mystery

  • COSINE 100 – an investigation into dark matter - challenges long standing beliefs
  • The experiment is a collaboration of 50 scientists from Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Indonesia and includes Professor Neil Spooner from the University of Sheffield, who cofounded the experiment
  • Initial data indicates no dark-matter induced events

Astrophysical evidence suggests that the Universe contains a large amount of non-luminous dark matter, but no definite signal has been observed, despite concerted efforts by many experimental groups.

dark matter

One exception is the long-debated claim by the DAMA group of an annual modulation in the events observed in their detector using sodium-iodide target material, as might be expected from weakly interacting massive particle (WIMP) dark matter interactions.

The new COSINE-100 experiment, an underground dark matter detector at the Yangyang Underground Laboratory (Y2L) in Korea is starting to explore this claim using the same medium. It now has first results that significantly challenge the interpretations made by DAMA that have stood for nearly two decades.

Y2L is operated by the Centre for Underground Physics (CUP, Director: Yeongduk Kim) of the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) in Korea.

The puzzle of DAMA’s signal, and its inconsistencies with results from other experiments, have resulted in hundreds of publications. Many new models to explain dark matter have been proposed as a result and the controversy remains of great scientific and public interest.

A critical point is that COSINE-100 is investigating the claimed dark matter detection of DAMA using the same target material as DAMA and is the first to release significant results by this means. In a paper published in the journal Nature, the collaboration describes results from the first phase of work, a search for the dark matter signal by looking for an excess of events over the expected background.

This study indicates that there are no such events present in the data, confirming that DAMA's annual modulation signal is in severe tension with results from other experiments under the assumption of the most traditional so-called Standard Halo Model for dark matter in our galaxy.

“The result of this search is significant because, for the first time, we have sizeable sodium-iodide crystal detectors with enough sensitivity to look at the DAMA signal region. It has been for 20 years that the potentially significant claim has not been reproduced using the same crystals independently,” said COSINE-100 co-spokesperson and the associate director at CUP, Hyun Su Lee.

“The initial results even carve out a fair portion of the possible dark matter search region drawn by the DAMA signal. In other words, there is little room left for this claim to be from the dark matter interaction unless the dark mattermodel is significantly modified.”

Professor Neil Spooner, Head of the University of Sheffield’s Particle Physics Group, who cofounded the experiment, said: “The possibility that the particle dark matter that makes up most of the mass of the Universe has been discovered by the DAMA group through their observation of an annual modulation signal in sodium iodide has been one of the biggest issues in particle astrophysics and cosmology for over two decades.

“It has proved surprisingly hard to confirm or refute the result, so it's very exciting at last to have an experiment that is really able to solve this mystery by using the same target material.

“The UK pioneered much of the original development of sodium iodide technology for dark matter detection and I was lucky enough to lead the early NAIAD experiment based on this at the UK's Boulby Underground Laboratory.

“COSINE-100 has emerged thanks to the efforts of a few of us over several years to bring together world-wide expertise to tackle the issue and to build this new experiment in Korea.

“It's an excellent example of cooperative international science with many young people involved including several of my PhD students in the department at Sheffield. We are all really looking forward now to solving this great problem in science, identifying what is this invisible dark matter stuff that makes up most of the mass of the Universe.”

The COSINE-100 collaboration is composed of 50 scientists from Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Indonesia.

COSINE-100 began data taking in 2016. The experiment utilizes eight low-background thallium-doped sodium iodide crystals arranged in a 4 by 2 array, giving a total target mass of 106 kg. Each crystal is coupled to two photosensors to measure the amount of energy deposited in the crystal. The sodium iodide crystal assemblies are immersed in 2,200 L of light-emitting liquid, which allows for the identification and subsequent reduction of radioactive backgrounds observed by the crystals. The liquid scintillator is surrounded by copper, lead, and plastic scintillator to reduce the background contribution from external radiation, as well as cosmic-ray muons.

“So far, we have not yet discovered the dark matter particles in this search but we have come closer to testing the origin of the DAMA signal on whether this is from dark matter interactions or some unknown systematic effect,” said Chang Hyon Ha, research fellow at CUP.

Despite the strong evidence for its existence, the identity of dark matter remains a mystery. Several years of data will be necessary to fully confirm or refute DAMA's annual modulation results. Improved theoretical understanding and more data from the upgraded COSINE detector (COSINE-200) will help understand the mystery of the signal.

To help achieve this goal, CUP is currently constructing a new experimental site in a deeper and more spacious location, called Yemi Laboratory in Jeongseon County. COSINE-100 is currently collecting data with continuous improvement in understanding the detector.

For more information about COSINE-100, visit or

Additional Information

In a new podcast, University of Sheffield particle physicists Professor Dan Tovey and Dr Ed Daw debate two theories that may explain dark matter – axions and weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). Listen on Apple Podcasts

The University of Sheffield
With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.
Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


The University of Sheffield Media Team
0114 222 1047