As you read this, trillions and trillions of neutrinos are going to hit you this moment. Those will pass through as if you are transparent. Don’t worry, it will not affect you in any way and neither will you affect those in any way. These subatomic particles will pass through the walls and trees and through the earth itself, into the space infinite. Project Neutrino is India’s 1500-crore bold experiment to observe these tiny particles.

Project Neutrino is really a big deal. It is an experiment that needs an underground laboratory. It needs a magnet that is bigger than that of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Seven top organizations in India who lead in the study of subatomic particles will participate in this one of a kind experiment.

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What is a neutrino?

Neutrinos flabbergast scientists. The space is filled with neutrinos but you cannot detect one. A neutrino does not have any charge. It travels almost at the speed of light. It has almost no mass – it is so less than a neutrino passes between the atoms. That is why neutrinos simply pass through our body as if we are transparent. Neutrinos do not react nor do they affect anything.

Project Neutrino

Neutrinos were created in a fraction of second after the big bang, which means those have been here forever. Neutrinos also come through the sun and pass through the earth without any hindrance. They travel through all planets and stars into space until infinity. Neutrinos are formed whenever a star explodes or there is a gamma ray burst. A tiny part of the energy turns into neutrinos. When a Helium atom is formed, neutrinos are released.

Basically we know nothing about a neutrino. What we do know is that this subatomic particle can be called similar to an electron and are called leptons. Neutrinos come in different ‘flavours’ like the muon and the tau.

Due to the fact that neutrinos do not react at all, detecting these is tricky. A neutrino detector has to be large and extremely sensitive. There is a 1000-ton detector at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory which gets hit by 1012 neutrinos per second. After a whole day’s work only 30 neutrinos can be detected on average.

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Neutrinos although are the tiniest things in space, do carry energy. In fact the neutrino particles that come out of the sun carry 2% of its energy. That is huge!

There are only a handful of neutrino observatories in the world. IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica is one of the leading labs that study neutrino behaviour inside a block of ice.  Fermilab National Laboratory near Chicago is well known for its research on particle acceleration, and was the best until CERN came up with the Large Hadron Collider. Fermilab is also deep into neutrinos with Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.

Project Neutrino

Project Neutrino of India is set to be one of the largest and most important observatories in the world.

Project Neutrino in India

Neutrinos were being studied since the 1930s and have been drawing interest among the scientific community in India. Project Neutrino was proposed by many Indian scientists and researchers in since 1989. In 2000, a group of them took up the possibility seriously in the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata. The next year collaboration and meetings were held for the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO). Subsequently the Central Government granted Rs. 1500 crore for the Project Neutrino. Initially the location chosen for the INO was in Singara in Tamil Nadu. The site was a part of a reserved forest and therefore not suitable for the project so it was shifted to Theni.

Project Neutrino is one of the biggest and most ambitious projects not only in India but also globally. Scientists need to know about this strange and tiniest of particles because understanding neutrinos will explain a lot about the sun and other stars. In fact many scientists believe that neutrinos are the building blocks of nature, that is, neutrinos may be responsible for the way the universe takes its form.

Project Neutrino

What is there in Project Neutrino?

Ino Peak in Theni has constructed a cave that 4,300 ft deep in the ground. In it will be a Magnetised iron calorimieter, also known as the ICAL. Basically this is the world’s largest magnet ever made. This 50,000 ton ICAL magnet is four times larger than the one in CERN.

Of course launching such a huge experiment needs previous groundwork. The Kollar Gold mines were used by scientists as a makeshift neutron detector. Deep down at the bottom of the mine, a detector was set up. But the mine was not set for experimental purposes and a better location was needed.

In Kolkata the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC) made a prototype of the ICAL detector. It was a small square with sides of 1 metre only. But it has fourteen layers and weighs an unbelievable 35 tons. Situated in the midst of the city, this neutrino detector sits above ground. This prototype is used to observe neutrinos and cosmic rays by the scientists.

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Will Project Neutrino be safe?

There have been two factions regarding the safety concerns of Project Neutrino. Scientists say that it safe to build a neutrino observatory. It does not require any dashing experiments like in the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider nor is there any nuclear energy involved. The observatory will just try to capture the passing neutrinos and study it. Although this sounds pretty passive, environmentalists have raised their concern.

The Project Neutrino needed a huge piece of area that is away from the locality. At first the land allotted was a part of a Reserved Forest and under the Project Tiger and an important elephant corridor. After protests the site was shifted to Theni where a huge cave has been made under a mountain and thousands of feet underground. Building this cave required blasting away the rocks and cutting off thousands of trees. Needless to say the forest around the Theni area has lost their natural surroundings. The tribes who have been living there for generations are not sure how to go about their life and livelihood. Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, which is situated less than 5 kilometers from the lab has also been overlooked.

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The question is, why choose a location in such a lush dense area. It is assumed that the location of Project Neutrino from the CERN is very close to a distance called the ‘Magic Baseline’. According to physicists, this distance gives a ‘clean’ measurement. Maybe we will see in future both the organizations working together on this.

A question however remains – what will be the impact of having the largest man made magnet on earth? The magnet of INO is four times bigger than that of CERN’s. Is it the reason why the location of Project Neutrino is far away from cities and deep underground?

Project Neutrino

People have also questioned the usefulness of such a hugely expensive project. Scientific research cannot be quantified with money as much of it is abstract. In the global scientific community, having a neutrino detector will definitely be a great achievement, something that only a few nations have achieved. Scientists speculate that neutrinos will take us deeper into the mysteries of the sun and the expanding universe. Perhaps in future it can lead to new sources of free energy leading to less pollution and a greener world.

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