Dark Matter Freeze Out: An Origin Story

In the universe, today, there exists some non-zero amount of dark matter. How did it get here? Has this same amount always been here? Did it start out as more or less earlier in the universe? The so-called “freeze out” scenario is one explanation for how the amount of dark matter we see today came to be.

The freeze out scenario essentially says that there is some large amount of dark matter in the early universe that decreases to the amount we observe today. This early universe dark matter (\chi) is in thermal equilibrum with the particle bath (f), meaning that whatever particle processes create and destroy dark matter, they happen at equal rates, \chi \chi \rightleftharpoons f f, so that the net amount of dark matter is unchanged. We will take this as our “initial condition” and evolve it by letting the universe expand. For pedagogical reasons, we will name processes that create dark matter (f f \rightharpoonup \chi \chi) “production” processes, and processes that destroy dark matter ( \chi \chi \rightharpoonup f f) “annihilation” processes.

Now that we’ve established our initial condition, a large amount of dark matter in thermal equilibrium with the particle bath, let us evolve it by letting the universe expand. As the universe expands, two things happen:

  1. The energy scale of the particle bath (f) decreases. The expansion of the universe also cools down the particle bath. At energy scales (temperatures) less than the dark matter mass, the production reaction becomes kinematically forbidden. This is because the initial bath particles simply don’t have enough energy to produce dark matter. The annihilation process though is unaffected, it only requires that dark matter find itself to annihilate. The net effect is that as the universe cools, dark matter production slows down and eventually stops.
  2. Dark matter annihilations cease. Due to the expansion of the universe, dark matter particles become increasingly separated in space which makes it harder for them to find each other and annihilate. The result is that as the universe expands, dark matter annihilations eventually cease.

Putting all of this together, we obtain the following plot, adapted from  The Early Universe by Kolb and Turner and color-coded by me.

Fig 1: Color – coded freeze out scenario. The solid line is the density of dark matter that remains in thermal equilibrium as the universe expands. The dashed lines represent the freeze out density. The red region corresponds to a time in the universe when the production and annihilation rate are equal. The purple region; a time when the production rate is smaller than the annihilation rate. The blue region; a time when the annihilation rate is overwhelmed by the expansion of the universe.
  • On the horizontal axis is the dark matter mass divided by temperature T. It is often more useful to parametrize the evolution of the universe as a function of temperature rather than time, through the two are directly related.
  • On the vertical axis is the co-moving dark matter number density, which is the number of dark matter particles inside an expanding volume as opposed to a stationary volume. The comoving number density is useful because it accounts for the expansion of the universe.
  • The quantity \langle \sigma_A v \rangle is the rate at which dark matter annihilates. If the annihilation rate is small, then dark matter does not annihilate very often, and we are left with more. If we increase the annihilation rate, then dark matter annihilates more frequently, and we are ultimately left with less of it.
  • The solid black line is the comoving dark matter density that remains in thermal equilibrium, where the production and annihilation rates are equal. This line falls because as the universe cools, the production rate decreases.
  • The dashed lines are the “frozen out” dark matter densities that result from the cooling and expansion of the universe. The comvoing density flattens off because the universe is expanding faster than dark matter can annihilate with itself.

The red region represents the hot, early universe where the production and annihilation rates are equal. Recall that the net effect is the amount of dark matter remains constant, so the comoving density remains constant. As the universe begins to expand and cool, we transition into the purple region. This region is dominated by temperature effects, since as the universe cools the production rate begins to fall and so the amount of dark matter than can remain in thermal equilibrium also falls. Finally, we transition to the blue region, where expansion dominate. In this region, dark matter particles can no longer find each other and annihilations cease. The comoving density is said to have “frozen out” because i) the universe is not energetic enough to produce new dark matter and ii) the universe is expanding faster than dark matter can annihilate with itself. Thus, we are left with a non-zero amount of dark matter than persists as the universe continues to evolve in time.


[1] – This plot is figure 5.1 of Kolb and Turners book The Early Universe (ISBN: 978-0201626742). There are many other plots that communicate essentially the same information, but are much more cluttered.

[2] – Dark Matter Genesis. This is a PhD thesis that does a good job of summarizing the history of dark matter and explaining how the freeze out mechanism works.

[3] – Dark Matter Candidates from Particle Physics and Methods of Detection. This is a review article written by a very prominent member of the field, J. Feng of the University of California, Irvine.

[4] – Dark Matter: A Primer. Have any more questions about dark matter? They are probably addressed in this primer.

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Adam Green

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