06 September 2013

Wireless neutrino network could pass through the center of the Earth

Scientists working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago have successfully communicated a short digital message using a stream of neutrinos. While this sounds cool, the truly exceptional bit is that the message was transmitted through 790 feet (240m) of solid stone.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that have almost zero mass, a neutral charge, and travel at close to the speed of light. Unlike almost every other particle in the universe, neutrinos are unaffected by electromagnetism (because of their neutral charge), and only subject to gravity and weak nuclear force. This means that neutrinos can easily pass through solid objects as large as planets. Every second, 65 billion neutrinos from the Sun pass through each square centimeter of the Earth at almost the speed of light.

To recreate this effect, the Fermilab scientists used a particle accelerator (NuMI) to shoot a stream of neutrinos through 240 meters of stone at the MINERvA neutrino detector. If MINERvA detected neutrinos, it registered as a binary 1; no neutrinos, binary 0. Using this technique (pictured above), the scientists, with a burst of originality to rival Alexander Graham Bell himself, transmitted the word “neutrino.”

Now, there’s nothing to stop Fermilab from pointing their particle gun at the ground and shooting neutrinos all the way through the Earth to Chicago’s antipode near Australia. This would instantly become the fastest communication network on the planet: Instead of traveling 10,000 miles or more via cable, it’s only 8,000 miles in a direct line through the center of the Earth. Satellite networks, which are still regularly used for telecoms, have to bounce through 50,000 miles or more.

In theory, anyway. The same properties that allow neutrinos to pass through whole planets also make them very hard to detect. MINERvA is a large, multi-ton slab of metal (pictured right), and yet it can only detect one neutrino in 10 billion. Producing all of those neutrinos requires a huge amount of energy and a particle accelerator, which is usually a few miles in length

Suffice it to say, then, that mere mortals won’t be building neutrino networks any time soon, but there are definitely military and government applications. Similar to quantum networks, it would be very hard to wiretap a neutrino burst. Likewise, neutrinos could also be used to communicate with submarines, which have very limited communication channels (radio waves really don’t like water). Then there’s the interstellar internet — or Galnet, as I like to call it — where you really don’t want a wireless signal to hit an obstacle (a star, planet, spaceship…) half way there.

Read more: What is LTE? and How LTE actually works?


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