[Burning Issue] India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO)

Why in News?

The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project has got a fresh lease of life

  1. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has taken it up as a special case and granted it environmental clearance to set up the lab in Bodi West Hills

What are neutrinos?

  1. Neutrinos are electrically neutral, elementary weakly interacting subatomic particles with half-integer spin. They belong to the lepton family.
  2. Neutrinos were first proposed by Swiss scientist Wolfgang Pauli, are the second most widely occurring particle in the universe, only second to photons, the particle which makes up light.
  3. Neutrinos are similar to the more familiar electron, with one crucial difference: neutrinos do not carry electric charge. Because neutrinos are electrically neutral, they are not affected by the electromagnetic forces which act on electrons.

How are atmospheric neutrinos produced in nature?

  1. Atmospheric neutrinos are produced from cosmic rays which consist of protons and heavy nuclei.
  2. These collide with atmospheric molecules such as Nitrogen to give off pions and muons which further decay to produce neutrinos.

 Why study neutrinos?

  • Properties of the sun

Solar neutrinos, produced in the core of the sun give us information about the interior of the sun. Studying these neutrinos can help us understand what goes on in the interior of the sun.

  • What makes up the universe?

If the properties of neutrinos are understood better, they can be used in astronomy to discover what the universe is made up of.

  • Probing Early Universe

The extragalactic neutrinos we observe may be coming from the distant past. These inviolate messengers can give us a clue about the origin of the universe and the early stages of the infant universe, soon after the Big Bang.

  • In Nuclear non-proliferation:

It may have a role to play in nuclear non-proliferation through the remote monitoring of nuclear reactors. Using appropriate neutrino detectors, the plutonium content can be monitored remotely and used to detect any pilferage.

  • Improve telecom and internet services:

They may open up a faster way to send data than the current ‘around the earth’ model, using towers, cables or satellites.

Such a communication system using neutrinos will be free of transmission losses as neutrinos rarely react with the atoms in their path. This can open up new vistas for telecom and Internet services.

  • To detect mineral and oil deposits deep in the earth:

Neutrinos tend to change their “flavour” depending on how far they have travelled and how much matter they have passed through in the way, this same property might help us detect early geological defects deep within the earth, and thereby might be the answer to an early warning system against earthquakes.

India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO)

  1. India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) is a particle physics research project under construction to primarily study atmospheric neutrinos in a 1,300 meters (4,300 ft) deep cave under Ino Peak near Theni, Tamil Nadu, India
  2. This project is notable in that it is anticipated to provide a precise measurement of neutrino mixing parameters
  3. The project is a multi-institute collaboration and one of the biggest experimental particle physics projects undertaken in India
  4. When completed, the main magnetized iron calorimeter (ICAL) experiment will include the world’s largest magnet, four times larger than the 12,500-tonne magnet in the Compact Muon Solenoid detector at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland
  5. The initial goal of INO is to study neutrinos
  6. Neutrinos are fundamental particles belonging to the lepton family. They come in three flavors, one associated with electrons and the others with their heavier cousins the muon and the Tau
  7. Recent experiments indicate that these charge-neutral fundamental particles have finite but small mass which is unknown

What’s special about locating the INO in the South?

  1. A project report says most of the neutrino detectors are at latitudes over 35 deg. It is possible to push such a detector down to almost 8 deg latitude in South India, within proximity to the Equator.
  2. This permits neutrino astronomy searches covering the whole celestial sky and study of solar neutrinos passing through the Earth’s core.

Why does INO need the mountain?

  1. The mountain consists of 1km of solid rock that filters away most of the charged particles from the cosmic rays.
  2. The filtered set consists of a part of the incident cosmic ray protons and pions and practically all the neutrinos.

Why does the experiment have to be underground?

  1. If the detector was placed at the surface of the mountain, it would pick up billions of cosmic ray muons every hour and about 10 neutrino events per day.
  2. After placing inside the rock, it would detect only 300 muon events per hour and about 10 neutrino events per day of which 3 will be the desired muon neutrino events.

Who else has a neutrino facility?

  1. Underground: SNO, Canada, Kamioka in Japan and Gran Sasso, Italy.
  2. Underwater: Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica. Antares – under the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Toulon, France.

Why are the locals opposing it?

  1. Locals fear that the excavation and blasts needed to bore the tunnel in the mountains will endanger the biodiversity of the Western Ghats.
  2. Some of the concerns voiced range from radiation, structural damage to the mountain to emission of hazardous chemicals.

Other concerns and way forward

  1. Yet another concern is that spending crores on scientific research of this kind is a waste of money. Scientists counter this argument by highlighting the enormous achievements 20th century has brought in on the pillars of relativity and quantum mechanics.
  2. Furthermore, they point out that the INO faculty will give Indian particle physics students the chance to do cutting-edge research at home. This counter-argument gains significance considering the fact that more than half the Nobel Prizes in physics in the past 50 years have been awarded to basic research in particle physics — this includes the 2015 Prize for the discovery of neutrino oscillations!.
  3. Thus, while public apprehensions about projects like INO are understandable, they also illustrate the fact that communication between the scientific community and citizens needs to be more basic and more democratic. At a time when India is battling a brain drain epidemic, doing this could give its scientific community a much-needed boost while making science accessible to the larger public
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