Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Tiny particles send a message for the first time (+video)

Scientists have used neutrinos to send a message. This may be the first step toward a new form of communication. 

By Clara MoskowitzLiveScience / March 15, 2012

Scientists stand with the Minerva neutrino detector, located 330 feet underground at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.



For the first time, scientists have used neutrinos – the exotic fundamental particles that routinely pass right through Earth – to send a message through the ground.

Skip to next paragraph
Neutrinos are the vampires of physics.

Researchers have long been intrigued by the communication possibilities of neutrinos, because these particles can easily travel through matter, including a planet, without stopping, slowing down or being misdirected.

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.

Now, scientists have successfully harnessed neutrinos to send a message from one place to another, spelling out the word "neutrino" in a particle binary code. [Nature's Tiniest Particles Dissected (Infographic)]

Particle telephone

The researchers used the NuMI particle accelerator at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., to create beams of neutrinos, which result when speeding protons collide into a wall of carbon atoms. (NuMI stands for "Neutrinos at the Main Injector.") 

The scientists then sent this beam toward a neutrino detector about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) away, buried in a cavern.

Because neutrinos so rarely interact with other particles, they are extremely difficult to detect. The detector, called Minerva, contains layers of different materials, including carbon, lead and iron. As the neutrinos pass through it, occasionally a neutrino will collide head-on with the nucleus of one of these atoms, creating other particles that are visible to the detector.

"The likelihood of that occurring is very small, but if you have a big enough mass in the detector it will occur frequently enough to get a signal," said study leader Dan Stancil, an electrical engineer at North Carolina State University. "One in every 10 billion neutrinos creates an event."

To send their message, the researchers turned their neutrino beam on and off in the fashion of a binary system of 1s and 0s used by computers to encapsulate information.

The neutrino beams normally come in pulses, one every 2.2 seconds. To make a 1, the scientists turned the neutrino beam on and let it send its signal to the detector. To make a zero, they stopped the beam, losing a pulse. Thus they were able to spell out "neutrino" in a way that could be read by scientists at the detector.

The results are reported in a paper submitted to the journal Modern Physics Letters A.

Submarine communications

Though it's just a first step, Stancil says the technique eventually could be useful in situations where normal methods of sending communications don't work.

For instance, Stancil told LiveScience, "it's really almost impossible and impractical to communicate with a submarine when they're at depth. The seawater has some electrical conductivity, and as a result radio waves don't penetrate very deeply. So I believe that having some way of getting messages through would be of interest."

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Editors' picks

Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!