Wireless Message via Particles

Thursday, March 15, 2012 @ 12:03 PM gHale

It is now possible to send a message using a beam of neutrinos, which are nearly massless particles that travel at almost the speed of light. The message went through 240 meters of stone and said, “Neutrino.”

“Using neutrinos, it would be possible to communicate between any two points on Earth without using satellites or cables,” said Dan Stancil, professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper describing the research. “Neutrino communication systems would be much more complicated than today’s systems, but may have important strategic uses.”

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Theories abound about the possible uses of neutrinos in communication because of one particularly valuable property: They can penetrate almost anything they encounter. If this technology applied toward submarines, then they could conceivably communicate over long distances through water, which is difficult, if not impossible, with present technology. And if we wanted to communicate with something in outer space that was on the far side of a moon or a planet, our message could travel straight through without impediment.

“Of course, our current technology takes massive amounts of high-tech equipment to communicate a message using neutrinos, so this isn’t practical now,” said Kevin McFarland, a University of Rochester physics professor who was involved in the experiment. “But the first step toward someday using neutrinos for communication in a practical application is a demonstration using today’s technology.”

The team of scientists demonstrated it was possible performed their test at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab (or Fermilab), outside of Chicago.

At Fermilab the researchers had access to two crucial components. The first is one of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators, which creates high-intensity beams of neutrinos by accelerating protons around a 2.5-mile-circumference track and then colliding them with a carbon target. The second is a multi-ton detector called MINERvA, located in a cavern 100 meters underground.

The fact that such a substantial setup is necessary to communicate using neutrinos means that much work will need to happen before the technology can see the light of day.

The communication test occurred during a two-hour period when the accelerator was running at half its full intensity due to an upcoming scheduled downtime. While the test was going on, researchers were collecting regular MINERvA interaction data.

Today, most communication goes out by sending and receiving electromagnetic waves. That is how our radios, cell phones, and televisions operate. But electromagnetic waves don’t pass easily through most types of matter. Water and mountains and many other liquids and solids end up blocking them. Neutrinos, on the other hand, regularly pass through entire planets without any problems. Because of their neutral electric charge and almost non-existent mass, neutrinos are not subject to magnetic attractions and gravity does not significantly altered them, so they are virtually free of impediments to their motion.

The message the scientists sent using neutrinos translated into binary code. The word “neutrino” came together via a series of 1’s and 0’s, with the 1’s corresponding to a group of neutrinos fired and the 0’s corresponding to no neutrinos fired. The neutrinos fired in large groups because they are so evasive that even with a multi-ton detector, only about one in ten billion neutrinos undergo detection. After detecting the neutrinos, a computer on the other end translated the binary code back into English, and the word “neutrino” successfully came out.

“Neutrinos have been an amazing tool to help us learn about the workings of both the nucleus and the universe,” said Deborah Harris, Minerva project manager, “but neutrino communication has a long way to go before it will be as effective.”

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