Breakthrough Research


Research conducted in part at MCLA by physics professor Dr. Emily Maher has been named by Physics World as one of the top 10 breakthroughs of 2012. Maher is among a relatively small group of physicists and engineers who are the first to demonstrate communications using neutrinos.

For this highly commended research initiative, a group of MINERvA (Main Injector Neutrino ExperRiment v-A) scientists, Fermilab accelerator physicists, and a group of engineers at North Carolina State determined that communication through the use of neutrinos is achievable.

The neutrino communication experiment, according to Maher, was a very exciting side project of MINERvA, which is based at Fermilab, in Illinois. There, scientists and researchers from colleges and universities around the globe study the neutrino, a fundamental particle.

Maher - who helped to build the neutrino detector and the mechanism that makes it feasible to see the beam - wrote part of the data analysis codes that made this type of communication possible.

She and the other researchers figured out how to encode and detect a signal using these particles. By using Fermilab's NuMI neutrino beam and the MINERvA detector, the group transmitted data to show that the principle of neutrino communication is sound.

"This was a proof of principle experiment," Maher explained. "In the far future, this type of communication could be used to communicate over large distances in difficult environments, such as space or the ocean."

Using neutrinos is a good method of communication, she said, because they rarely interact with matter. As a result, they can travel very far distances.

"We can send neutrinos and almost 100 percent will make it," Maher said. "If we try that with light or radio waves or other types of waves, those types of communication would encounter interference and they wouldn't make it."

The subatomic particles easily can pass through 1,000 light-years of lead without being affected. What's more, communication through neutrinos is extremely secure because the information is very difficult for others to intercept.

This work not only allows Maher to contribute to frontier research, but to share what she discovers with her students.

"It's really cutting-edge research. No one has done this before. I can explain basically what the applications are and how we accomplished it. I'm an expert on it as I've built part of it, so I know the ins and outs, and I can answer any questions they have," she said.

The MINERvA group published four papers in the last year: the neutrino communication paper and three technical papers. Soon, they will publish their results papers, which will include cross section measurements of quasi-elastic neutrino and anti-neutrino interactions, neutrino interactions that involve pions in the final state, and neutrino interactions in different nuclear target materials.

"It is a very exciting time at MINERvA, as many people have been working for many years to get to this point where we can add to the body of particle physics," Maher said.

Maher began her work at Fermilab in 2008, when the MINERvA group accepted her and MCLA into its collaboration.

"I found the MINERvA experiment very interesting, mainly because it could make so many different measurements. It was also a small collaboration, roughly 80 people. This is small in terms of typical particle physics collaborations," she explained. "For example, one of the experiments at the LHC in CERN has over 3,600 collaborators!"

What's next for Maher at MINERvA? Beginning this spring and through 2015, the accelerator at Fermilab is undergoing an upgrade, which will allow researchers to take data with medium energy neutrinos.

"As the energy of the neutrinos increases, the number of different kinds of neutrino interactions will also increase. When we have our new data, we will be able to study different physics mechanisms," she said.

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