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Tech alum helps solve mysteries of universe

  • Former Gill resident and FCTS alumnus Nicolas Berniche with a lab component he helped to complete at the New Hampshire welding shop where he is employed. <br/>------Photo ourtesy of Jason Perron-----

    Former Gill resident and FCTS alumnus Nicolas Berniche with a lab component he helped to complete at the New Hampshire welding shop where he is employed.
    ------Photo ourtesy of Jason Perron----- Purchase photo reprints »

  • Former Gill resident and FCTS alumnus Nicolas Berniche works on a pressure chamber commissioned for an experiment to  detect dark matter. <br/>------Photo ourtesy of Jason Perron-----

    Former Gill resident and FCTS alumnus Nicolas Berniche works on a pressure chamber commissioned for an experiment to detect dark matter.
    ------Photo ourtesy of Jason Perron----- Purchase photo reprints »

  • Former Gill resident and FCTS alumnus Nicolas Berniche with a lab component he helped to complete at the New Hampshire welding shop where he is employed. <br/>------Photo ourtesy of Jason Perron-----
  • Former Gill resident and FCTS alumnus Nicolas Berniche works on a pressure chamber commissioned for an experiment to  detect dark matter. <br/>------Photo ourtesy of Jason Perron-----

GILL – This winter, former Gill resident local and Franklin County Technical School graduate Nicolas Berniche’s handiwork will be hidden from the light of day in the depths of a defunct mine.

Not normally a positive distinction, the difference in this case is that it will then be monitored with rapt attention by scientists searching for evidence of an as-yet theoretical class of matter.

Berniche, a 2008 Tech graduate, was responsible for welding together the two hemispheres of a stainless steel sphere five feet in diameter that will form one layer of a sophisticated testing chamber, according to Jason Perron, vice-president of New Hampshire machine shop Winchester Precision Technologies.

The finished device is designed to detect dark matter in an experiment planned by the Los Alamos National Lab in partnership with 15 other U.S. and Canadian universities and scientific institutes as the DEAP/CLEAN Collaboration.

The experiment itself will take place in Canada, deep in a defunct nickel mine now home to the SNOLAB laboratory.

As Perron describes it, the finished vessel, the many ports capped and fitted with light-detecting photomultiplier tubes, will be nested inside a vacuum chamber inside a water tank and filled with liquid neon or argon hundreds of degrees below zero.

“Then they wait for dark matter to come and interact with the nucleus of the neon or argon. When it does that, it will excite an electron and you’ll get a little flourescence and then all these photomultiplier tubes that look into all those holes will see this and then they’ll say ‘Oh wow, we’ve seen dark matter for the first time’ or ‘no, we haven’t,’” Perron said.

Dark matter is invisible matter detected through its gravitational effects and established to account for 23 percent of the universe’s energy and matter, according to the collaboration’s website, but never before detected in a lab environment for a closer look at its structure.

Shielded from cosmic radiation 6,800 feet below the earth’s surface, the hope is that dark matter particles blundering through the sphere will be detectable despite its theoretically weak interaction with other particles.

Perron said the shop has been working on the sphere for 26 months and has put in over six thousand man-hours.

Berniche’s contribution was in welding the vessel together, a task Perron said required special welding and material’s certifications for work on pressure vessels, as well as a degree of contortion.

The vessel’s shape had Berniche working with his body outside the sphere, reaching his head and arms through the holes.

Berniche also fabricated the components bolted to the ports and did other welding on the shop’s lengthy commission.

“There’s not a lot of room for error,” Perron said. “He came with high recommendations from his welding teachers and he certainly lived up to his billing.”

Perron said the company hired Berniche out of school and he now lives in Winchester.

Tony McIntosh, an instructor in the technical school’s welding and metal fabrication program, remembered Berniche as a hard-working student and has kept in touch since.

McIntosh said he found the opening at the Winchester shop through family and former student connections after Berniche left a work study at another company that didn’t have the work to keep him busy.

“I told Nick I thought it would be a good place for him and if he got up there and he settled in and he did nice quality work there would be a lot of opportunities for him and it seems like that’s what he’s been able to do,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh said the school can’t certify students but they have the opportunity to pick up the certifications required for pressure-vessel work and other specializations outside school as students or once they enter the work force.

“Most of them leave and they’re in a position where with a little additional practice, a little additional fine-tuning if you will, they can very easily pass the test,” McIntosh said.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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