You might not have have heard that physicists want $1 billion US for a project to detect neutrinos that includes building an underground tunnel, 800 miles long, between Chicago and South Dakota. The recently released Depart of Energy plan includes funding for the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE) which includes an experiment to “send the world’s highest-intensity neutrino beam 800 miles through the Earth’s mantle”.
What the site LBNE site doesn’t tell you is that neutrino science is ushering in a new age and promises to open the door to our future .
The experiment, which will lead to an expanded understanding of neutrinos more generally, may lead to further developments that promise to bring about the end of nuclear weapons, enable low cost fusion reactors, advance our understanding of the fundamental structures and laws of the universe, and even facilitate communication with advanced extra-terrestrial civilizations. Sound far fetched? It’s all due to the special properties of the elusive and mysterious subatomic particle the neutrino.
There are currently three known types of neutrinos, but some theories postulate that there may be a fourth or even a fifth type of exotic neutrino. An “electron neutrino” makes an electron and has a mass lower than 2.2 eV. A “muon neutrino” makes a muon and has a mass less than 170 keV. A “tau neutrino” makes a tau lepton but has a mass less than 15.5 MeV.
Neutrinos and the End of the Nuclear War
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the threat of nuclear warfare has hung over the human race as perhaps the most credible way in which we might exterminate ourselves. And recent events surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea and possible conflicts between nuclear armed nations in Eastern Europe have rekindled some of these concerns.
Nuclear weapons are arguably the most dangerous invention we’ve ever created. And the process of their creation is the world’s greatest secret. A global security apparatus of enormous reach and consequence has grown up around the absolute necessity of securing these weapons and the knowledge required to make them. But thanks to the tiny neutrino that may be about to change.
Today there exists the promise of a near term technology that can make nuclear weapons obsolete, and interestingly it is based around the science of the neutrino. Neutrinos are nearly massless neutral subatomic particles that are neutral and therefore do not interact with charged particles such as electrons and protons. Because neutrinos are not affected by electromagnetic fields and only by the weak sub-atomic force, they pass through most materials and can travel vast distances through interstellar space. Perhaps most importantly science of detecting and creating neutrinos has the potential to make nuclear weapons obsolete and irrelevant.
Nuclear weapons pose what is arguably the greatest man made existential threat to the human race. However it is only recently that we’ve had the ability to detect these minute particles and create them in large numbers with high energies. But how can such a tiny and hard to measure particle make nuclear weapons obsolete? Firstly, sensitive neutrino detectors have the potential to revolutionize arms control. The process of producing nuclear materials for use in weapons requires a specific pattern of operations and rotation of fuel rods in a nuclear reactor. This process produces an observable neutrino and antineutrino signature as do underground nuclear tests. Sensitive detectors appropriately located can measure the operation of nuclear reactors anywhere on the Earth and render secret operation of a nuclear weapons program essentially impossible. The technology could also be used to track nuclear powered vessels.
But that is just the start and one part of how neutrino science is ushering in what might be called the post nuclear era. A new type of particle accelerator, a high energy muon collider, could revolutionize warfare and render nuclear weapon a thing of the past. Hirotaka Sugawara and his colleagues propose the use of a high energy neutrino beam to destroy nuclear weapons remotely. This hypothesized neutrino beam passes through the Earth and interacts with the nuclear materials inside of the distant nuclear weapon. This interaction can result in heating the nuclear material melting or damaging components of the device or potentially enabling remote detonation of an armed nuclear device.
A muon storage ring is used to accelerate larger particles, muons, to high energies. Muon collisions produce high energy neutrino beams that can be controlled and aimed.
The neutrino beam makes holding armed nuclear weapons more of a liability than a benefit, as an enemy armed with a neutrino weapon could consider remotely detonating them before they could be launched. Even if the bombs are not assembled, an enemy with a neutrino beam could simply render them useless over time . There is no known method of shielding against these beams.
However high energy neutrino beams themselves might be used as weapons. Sugawara also suggests that this technology can be used as a deadly weapon even against enemies that do not possess nuclear weapons. The neutrino beam can be aimed at people or places and the resulting hadron shower can be deadly. The weapon can be effective even against individuals in deep underground bunkers and other seemingly secure locations.
Full geek alert:
It’s seemingly a real life version of the infamous Tantalus Field, a fictional alien device that seemingly vaporized enemies at the touch of a button and was used by “Evil Kirk” to gain captaincy of ISS Enterprise in the Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror.
But the end of nuclear warfare and a perfect assassination weapon are just the start of what neutrino science will offer us.