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CERN physicists trap antimatter for 1,000 seconds

June 6, 2011
Antimatter Bottle

Artistic representation of the ALPHA neutral antimatter trap, as a container for antihydrogen (credit: Chukman So, © 2011 Wurtele Research Group)

Geneva, Switzerland — CERN physicists have reported they created antimatter in the Large Hadron Collider and stored it in three vials. Unfortunately, one of the vials has been stolen and will explode ritualistically at the Vatican if the battery dies and the magnetic containment field fails.

Wait, that’s a scene from the Angels and Demons movie. Last I checked, Europe is still there. In the nonfiction world, an international team of scientists in the ALPHA collaboration has stored 309 atoms of antihydrogen, for almost 17 minutes — a huge leap, compared to just 38 atoms for 172 ms (about two tenths of a second) in a previous try.

So how do you trap antimatter? In an antimatter trap, doh. Think Ghostbusters (“Why worry? Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.” —  Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman).

The ghost confinement trap was reportedly not used at CERN (credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

OK, actually, the trap was developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), using a superconducting eight-pole magnet. To make antihydrogen, the accelerators that feed protons to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN divert some of these to make antiprotons by slamming them into a metal target.

Why only 1,000 seconds? Because the anti-atoms explode when they contact matter. “So far, the only way we know whether we’ve caught an anti-atom is to turn off the magnet,” says Berkeley Lab’s Joel Fajans. “When the anti-atom hits the wall of the trap it annihilates, which tells us that we got one. In the beginning we were turning off our trap as soon as possible after each attempt to make anti-atoms, so as not to miss any.”

How the antimatter trap works: Antiprotons and positrons are brought into the ALPHA trap from opposite ends and held there by electric and magnetic fields. Brought together, they form anti-atoms neutral in charge but with a magnetic moment. If their energy is low enough they can be held by the octupole and mirror fields of the Minimum Magnetic Field Trap. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

So what about using those matter-antimatter explosions for energy? That’s 30 to 40 years away, says condensed matter physicist Dr. Andrew Beckwith, Dept. of Physics, Chongqing University in China, based on scuttlebutt from  Berkeley Lab researchers. Great, so will that solve our energy problems? “No, this would be even more dangerous than nuclear energy for use on Earth,” he said, “but  it could be used for propulsion in an interplanetary or interstellar spaceship.”

Cool, like the Hundred Year Starship! Sign me up.

Ref.: G. B. Andresen, et al., Confinement of antihydrogen for 1,000 seconds, Nature Physics, (2011) Free Access [DOI:10.1038/nphys2025]

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