Physics World Selects ECE Research for 2012 Top 10 Breakthroughs

December 17, 2012

MINERvA Detector 
MINERvA Detector

Research that produced the world's first message sent using tiny neutrino particles - a project led in part by Dr. Daniel Stancil, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State and Dr. Brian Hughes, professor and associate head of electrical and computer engineering at NC State - has been named among Physics World magazine's top 10 breakthroughs for 2012.

Earlier this year, the team of researchers successfully sent a beam of neutrinos through 240 meters of earth with a message in binary code that read, "neutrino." The communication marked the first time information had been transmitted with the particles, which can pass through almost anything because they have no electrical charge and very little mass.

The story was featured on the Physics World website in March. The magazine made its selections from a pool of more than 350 news articles about advances in the physical sciences published on its site in 2012.

Neutrinos have long held promise for communications. As the Physics World story notes: "For ease of transmission through any material, nothing beats the neutrino. The ghostly particle is affected only by the weak nuclear force and, very faintly, by gravity. As a result, it can pass through almost everything and interacts with virtually nothing."

But, the story says, one problem makes neutrino-based messaging difficult.

"Although neutrino-based systems have been proposed since the 1970s, they have all come up against the same problem: how to detect the neutrinos at the receiving end when the vast majority of the particles will pass straight through any detector. To detect enough neutrinos to transmit information at a reasonable rate, either an extremely intense neutrino source or a very large detector (or both) would be needed."

Dr. Daniel Stancil (L) & Dr. Brian Hughes (R) 
Dr. Daniel Stancil (L) & Dr. Brian Hughes (R)

About three years ago, the story continues, Dr. Stancil, was thinking about possibilities for communicating using axions - hypothetical particles that pique researchers' interest because they might be part of dark matter. From a communications perspective, axions are interesting because, if they exist, they could pass through any material. A former student pointed out that the concept could be tested with neutrinos at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab (FermiLab) outside of Chicago, where researchers were conducting a neutrino scattering experiment called MINERvA.

Physicists with the experiment agreed to collaborate with the engineers, so the lab's high-energy neutrino beam and multi-ton MINERvA detector were employed to send and receive the word "neutrino," which was spelled out in binary code as 1's and 0's.

Given the huge amount of technological muscle needed to send and receive one word, neutrinos won't be carrying messages for millions of people anytime soon. But the work does open up possibilities for future advances, including sending messages through the center of the earth and inter-stellar communications.

The team also included engineers from the NASA Glenn Research Center.