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Forget Radio! Transmitting with Neutrons

Throughout history, people have devised ways to send information across long distances. For centuries we relied on smoke signals, semaphores, and similar physical devices. Electricity changed everything. First the telegraph and then radio transformed communications. Now researchers at the University of Lancaster have demonstrated another way to send wireless data without using electromagnetic radiation. They’ve harnessed fast neutrons from californium-252 and modulated them with information with 100% success.

The setup was interesting. The radioactive material was encased in a cubic meter steel tank filled with water. A pneumatic system can move the material to one edge of the tank which allows fast neutrons to escape. A scintillating detector can pick up the increased neutron activity. It seems like it is akin to using what hams call CW and college professors call OOK (on off keying). You can do that with just about anything you can detect. A flashlight, knocking on wood, or — we suppose — neutrons.

We wondered what the practical application of this might be. The paper suggests that the technique could send data through metal containment structures like those of a nuclear reactor or, perhaps, a spacecraft where you don’t want anything unnecessarily breaching the containment. After all, neutrons cut through things that would stop a conventional radio wave cold.

It seems like you only have to prove you can detect something to make this work — it really doesn’t matter what it is you are detecting. It seems like it would be much harder to do more advanced types of modulation using neutrons. Maybe this is why we don’t hear aliens. They are all Morse code operators with neutron-based telegraphs.

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