A team at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois have successfully used a beam of the near-massless particles to transmit the word "neutrino" to a detector 1 km away, including a 240-metre journey through solid rock.
Neutrinos rarely interact with other forms of matter, so pass through most objects unimpeded - including the Earth's core. That makes them potentially useful as messengers. Previous suggestions include using these ghostly particles to send messages across the planet without wires, cables or satellites, to communicate with hidden submarines or even to sync alien clocks. This latest experiment is the first demonstration that the principle actually works.
The most intriguing thing about using neutrinos to communicate is that they can penetrate almost anything they encounter. This could be a particularly useful feature for submarines, for example, or for sending messages in space, allowing them to travel straight through a planet.
Neutrinos are extremely tiny particles with almost zero mass and neutral charge. Thus they are impervious to electromagnetic forces and respond very weakly to gravity. They almost never collide with other particles, generally passing straight through the atoms that make up matter.
The communication test was done during a two-hour period when the accelerator was running at half its full intensity due to an upcoming scheduled downtime. Regular MINERvA interaction data was collected at the same time the communication test was being carried out.
The message that the scientists sent using neutrinos was translated into binary code. In other words, the word "neutrino" was represented by a series of 1's and 0's, with the 1's corresponding to a group of neutrinos being fired and the 0's corresponding to no neutrinos being fired. The neutrinos were fired in large groups because they are so evasive that even with a multi-ton detector, only about one in ten billion neutrinos are detected. After the neutrinos were detected, a computer on the other end translated the binary code back into English, and the word "neutrino" was successfully received.
"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."
Minerva is an international collaboration of nuclear and particle physicists from 21 institutions that study neutrino behavior using a detector located at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. This is the first neutrino experiment in the world to use a high-intensity beam to study neutrino reactions with nuclei of five different target materials, creating the first side-by-side comparison of interactions. This will help complete the picture of neutrinos and allow data to be more clearly interpreted in current and future experiments.