Swapping conventional electromagnetic radiation for fast neutrons, a team of research engineers at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, working with the Jozef Stefan Institute of Slovenia, report that they have successfully transmitted digital information wirelessly using nuclear radiation. The researchers’ attempts to transmit words and numbers using standard ASCII code “were 100 percent successful,” according to a November 10 press release from Lancaster University. Their research will be published in an upcoming issue of Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research and is now available online.
Background: The researchers modulated the fast neutron flux from a californium-252 source within a 1-m3 water-filled steel tank using what they term a “neutron chopper”—a 120-mm-thick plastic shutter moved across an aperture by a microprocessor-controlled pneumatic piston.
Using standard seven-bit ASCII code, which assigns a series of 1’s and 0’s to numerals, letters, and symbols, the team encoded words and numbers. A “0” would briefly close the shutter, resulting in a change in the flow of neutrons that could be measured using a detector, recorded on a laptop, and decoded as a “0.”
“A double-blind test was performed in which a number derived from a random number generator was encoded without prior knowledge of those uploading it, and then transmitted and decoded,” according to the press release.
Potential applications: Because sources of fast neutrons are highly regulated, and fast neutron detection can be complicated by gamma radiation and neutron scattering, the potential of using fast neutron radiation for wireless communication would likely be limited to applications where conventional electromagnetic transmission is either not feasible or is inherently limited, according to Malcolm Joyce, of Lancaster University, who led the research. The research team believes that in some situations, fast neutrons could have an advantage over conventional electromagnetic waves, which can be weakened by transmission through materials, including metals.
“In some safety-critical scenarios, such as concerning the integrity of reactor containments and metal vaults and bulkheads in maritime structures, it can be important to minimize the number of penetrations made through such metal structures for communications cabling,” Joyce said. “The use of neutrons for information transmission through such structures could negate the need for such penetrations and is perhaps also relevant to scenarios where limited transmissions are desirable in difficult circumstances, such as for emergency rescue operations.”
Fast neutron communications could also be incorporated into mixed-signal communication systems with data transmission shared between electrons and neutrons, increasing the integrity of data transfer, according to the university.