Kyle Schurman
Mar 20, 2012

Neutrinos and wireless communications: The next quantum leap?

The Los Angeles Class Attack submarine USS Chicago (SSN 721) completes a training maneuver off the coast of MalaysiaNeutrinos may be some of those subatomic particles that don’t seem to be that much different from the other types of subatomic particles that have been discovered, but they could prove to be the key to long-range communication in harsh areas where standard radio waves cannot work.

A couple of years after researchers showed that neutrinos can work to provide communication through deep water -- as evidenced by their use with submarines in the ocean -- researchers now have determined that neutrinos can send messages through solid rock. This eventually could change the way communications take place throughout the world’s harshest climates.

The sun generates neutrinos regularly, passing billions of them through every square inch of the earth that’s facing the sun every second. Obviously, these subatomic particles aren’t harmful to life on earth. They carry no electrical charge, which allows them to avoid interaction with electromagnetic forces.

The sun generates billions of neutrinos

All of these factors make neutrinos a strong candidate for carrying data in difficult situations.

Currently, using radio waves, submarines have limited communications options. Some move close to the surface and use a trailing radio antenna to pick up very low frequency radio waves, which can travel through some water, but which can only carry about 50 bits of data per second, which is an extremely low transmission speed.

Although the general properties of neutrinos have been known for a few decades now, it’s been difficult to use them for communications, because the same properties that allow them to pass through water and rock also make it difficult for a receiver to pick up the data transmission that’s making use of neutrinos. Researchers, however, have figured out how to use the way that the neutrinos interact with matter to track them. The interaction produces particles called muons that the receiver can detect, allowing it to decipher the transmission.

Keep in mind that this research is far from complete. A team at Fermilab in Illinois used a format called NuMi that has been able to send pulses through almost 800 feet of solid rock to a receiver. Although the receiver was able to pick out the message, it only detected about 1 neutrino out of every 1 trillion that were sent. The team estimated that it took the system almost 2.5 hours to receive and decipher the word “neutrino.”

Fermilab's accelerator ringsAlthough this experiment doesn’t sound like much of a success, it could lead to some amazing options for communications down the road. Perhaps a satellite could pass messages without needing line of sight. Remote outposts in Antarctica or in mountainous regions could have the ability to communicate. Eventually, commercial and personal wireless data transmissions could occur deep under the earth.

Such options are quite a ways away, however. As of now, the transmitter and receiver are two different pieces of hardware, meaning that, say a submarine, would have to have both items to be able to communicate. And since the receiver currently weighs 170 tons, it’s not a practical matter to carry one around.

However, remember that cells phones once had to be carried around in briefcases. So now that this NuMi experiment has shown the viability of the technology, it’ll be up to the researchers to make the equipment truly practical and useable.