Boffins use nuclear radiation to send data wirelessly

Shall we call it Die-Fi? Or NoTooth? Either would be unkind, as this experiment used little radiation, but much exotic hardware

Boffins from the UK's Lancaster University and the Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia have transmitted and received data wirelessly using nuclear radiation.

The Register assumes that readers understand that the wireless tech used in phone networks, WiFi, Bluetooth, TV transmissions and the like employ electromagnetic radiation, which is rather safer and less controversial than nuclear radiation.

But in a study titled Wireless information transfer with fast neutrons, scientists and engineers used nuclear radiation emitted by Californium-252 instead.

"Several examples of pertinent information, i.e., a word, the alphabet and a random number selected blindly, have been encoded serially into the modulation of the neutron field," the paper states.

The boffins did so because "Fast neutrons propagate significant distances and interact with materials in ways that are complementary to those of electromagnetic radiation. However, their consideration as a potential means of wireless communication has been limited to date despite this complementarity with the electromagnetic medium of choice for both near-and far-field communication systems."

Fast neutrons have been left to their own devices – or should that be left out of devices – because sources of fast neutrons are "highly regulated for reasons of security and exposure risk". That risk comes from the fact they can penetrate most matter and do very nasty things to the human body.

But the authors of the paper have spotted a research paper titled Novel Surface-Mounted Neutron Generator that describes a "pulsed neutron generator packaged in a flat computer chip shape". That invention, the authors write, "suggests the prospect of integrating sources of neutrons into intelligent systems which could, hypothetically, design out issues of security and risk".

Their research doesn't directly address the risk issues associated with fast neutrons, but does find they can carry information.

Making it work required some Californium-252, a tank of water, and plenty of hardware besides in the transmission rig.

On the receiving end, the boffins used an organic scintillation detector housed in an aluminium casing with an integrated photomultiplier tube, installed in a "bespoke high-density polyethylene shroud, to minimise the influence of neutron scatter from the surroundings".

Clearly this is not going in your carry-on bag any time soon. Nor will networking companies be afraid: very small quantities of data took more than 80 seconds to transmit.

Yet the authors note that they transmitted data without activating any isotopes into radioactivity and did so using so little radiation that it was "within regulatory constraints and with dose levels maintained to be as low as reasonably practicable".

"It is anticipated that in-circuit applications would function at fluences several orders of magnitude less than this," they write.

The paper does not get anywhere near suggesting the research signals a future nuclear upgrade to WiFi.

It does, however, note "the potential to modulate reactivity in a nuclear reactor".

"The capability we report here might afford a means to decode such a modulation, with which to better understand the key safety concerns associated with reactor responses to reactivity perturbations."

Nobody tell the folks behind Stuxnet about that suggestion, please. ®

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