The Neutrino Network

The Neutrino Network

Summary: How would you like a wireless, near-light speed network that can work from your New York to Tokyo offices? With neutrino communications technology, we might see exactly that someday.


How Neutrino communications works. (Image courtesy of University of Rochester)

How Neutrino communications works. (Image courtesy of University of Rochester)

With 802.11n, you can see Wi-Fi networking speeds above 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) with a range up to 70-meters. With the just shipping now 802.11ac, you can get more than a Gigabit per second (Gbps) speeds with a range of about 35-meters. 802.11ad, which is still coming together, may give us 7Gbps speed but at a range of only five-meters. Or, if laboratory experiments by University of Rochester and North Carolina State University work out, we may someday be able to use neutrino networks at ranges of tens of thousands of kilometers.

Scientists from the school were able to use neutrinos--nearly massless particles that travel at almost the speed of light--to send the binary message "Neutrino" to a receiver that was just over a kilometer away and that included 240 meters of stone in the way." Try that with any other wireless technology!

In a statement, Dan Stancil, professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and lead author of Demonstration of Communication using Neutrinos, said, "Using neutrinos, it would be possible to communicate between any two points on Earth without using satellites or cables. Neutrino communication systems would be much more complicated than today's systems, but may have important strategic uses."

What neutrinos can do, that electromagnetic communications can't do, is penetrate almost anything they encounter. With their neutral electric charge and almost non-existent mass, neutrinos are not subject to magnetic attractions and are not significantly altered by gravity, so they are virtually free of any possible interference. With neutrino communications or networks we could talk or hook up wirelessly with anyone on Earth or, for that matter, the far side of the moon.

Of course, this is a long, long way from being something you can buy from Cisco! Kevin McFarland, a University of Rochester physics professor who was involved in the experiment, explained "Our current technology takes massive amounts of high-tech equipment to communicate a message using neutrinos, so this isn't practical now. But the first step toward someday using neutrinos for communication in a practical application is a demonstration using today's technology."

The scientists demonstrated that it was possible at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab. There they used one of the world's most powerful particle accelerators to create high-intensity beams of neutrinos by accelerating protons around a 2.5-mile-circumference track and then colliding them with a carbon target. With it they generated a message, which was detected by a multi-ton detector called MINERvA, which is located in a near-by cavern 100 meters underground. You won't be seeing this in an iPad anytime soon.

Of course, at a speed of 0.1 kilobit per second (Kbps), and the need for a particle accelerator and a multi-ton detector to make it work we have as Deborah Harris, Minerva project manager, put it "long way to go before it will be as effective." Still, literally limitless range wireless communications is just too attractive an idea not to eventually be turned into a government communications system and then commercial products if there's any way it can possibly be done.

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Topics: Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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  • From the 'FAR, FAR fetched Department'

    It was exciting until I reached the last paragraph. :/
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
    • Once our fastest internet connection was 56 kbps (nt)

  • Well, 35 years ago none of the PC based industry existed, so what's to say

    that in 35 years neutrino nets won't be the norm? Yes, today you need a couple tonnes of hardware and transmission rates are abysmal, and the PC I have on my desk that cost under $1000 would have been a massive, multi room, super computer 35 years ago. That old super computer wouldn't have done a quarter what my PC will do today either.

    The rate of change is phenominal, so, though today neutrino technology is hideous, in 35 years it just might be the norm.

    Come back in 35 years and find out.
    • Moore's law doesn't apply to everything

      Computers have gotten much faster because there the physical limit for how small transistors / etc. can get is very small - it has been an engineering challenge. However, there are some hard physics limitations on particle processes like these. While it's not impossible that developments could make neutrino communication possible, if possible it will be a matter of genius, hard work, and serendipity, and there's no Moore's Law for sudden brilliant ideas.
      • I agree, but...

        There's so much to learn about universe(specially particle physics). We haven't figured out the elusive dark matter & dark energy. We are still debating about Higgs-Boson in 2012.

        150 years ago, thought of portable wireless communication in everybody's hand was taken as blasphemy and thought of moving pictures with sound was like doing witch-craft.

        So, only future can tell. May be it won't be a reality in our lifetime. May be our great-great-great grandson will use it like pocket calculator.
    • heh

      "Yes, today you need a couple tonnes of hardware"

      That's kinda like saying a military tank is a couple of pounds ;). These particle accelerators are huge - try miles long.

      And the problem with detection is that we don't have a good way of detection. We currently use huge vats of a special type of water for detection - and we have no known way of miniaturizing water. What we come up with may have to be totally exotic, such as a Bose???Einstein condensate, and even then we don't know if reliable detection of neutrinos would be possible.

      Microchips turned out to be easy to miniaturize, as we were nowhere near the limits of how we could make them smaller. This isn't quite the same.

      This would indeed require "sudden bright ideas" if it's possible at all. And as Jack points out - there's no Moore's Law for sudden brilliant ideas.

      I do think that people are a bit too trusting of Moore's "law" these days, treating it as a physical law of the universe somehow.

      Truth be known, it really isn't. There's no guarantee of technological progress built into our universe.
  • The energy requirements for creating neutrinos

    makes it highly unlikely you're ever going to see anything smaller than a building able to make them in any significant quantity. That, combined with the fact they hardly interact with anything at all means you're just as unlikely to see a detector smaller than a multi-ton block.
  • Trans-oceanic

    For a first use, perhaps we can replace the trans oceanic fiber optics we currently use. They are large, fixed location items. Maybe by starting with something that it is OK if it is a building on each end, we can then improve the technology to where it is generally useful.
  • Non't let scientists fool you.

    It's already being used in top secret applications as a means to contact aliens.
  • Strategic Sub Communications

    As a replacement / alternative to VLF, this technology has the distinct drawback of being a "beam" device. Since the neutrino beam would necessarily connect transmitter and submarine, measurements of scattered particles, or the beam itself, would allow localization of the sub...
  • Isn't detecting them a major pain?

    Isn't detecting them a major pain, though?

    They can pass through an entire cell phone with ease without interacting with any of the matter inside. The only way we detect them at all is via massive vaults of heavy water (where the hydrogen has an extra neutron). Pretty infeasible to do that in a cell phone.
  • Warp Drive

    This is like that I am wishing my next BMW has a Wrap Drive...
  • Scientifically speaking, the following sentence is incorrect...

    "What neutrinos can do, that electromagnetic communications can???t do, is penetrate almost anything they encounter."

    The only reason they can get from point A to point B, is because, they don't encounter anything along the way. Every once in a long, long, long, long, ect, while, if they do encounter anything along the way, its trip from A to B will be interrupted. The backup plan would then be, to have more than the one neutrino making the trip from A to B, and hoping that, the same interruption wont block all of the sent neutrinos.