Antimatter containment system demonstrated in Geneva

Most people who are at all familiar with the concept of antimatter know about it from the sci-fi television series Star Trek. The substance is the fuel that runs the various starships’ powerful warp engines and is also the most dangerously explosive material known to their science. While the Federation of Star Trek is fictional, however, antimatter is not.

First described in serious scientific theory in the 1930’s, the existence of antimatter was confirmed by UC Berkeley scientists in 1955. Antimatter is basically matter with the atomic and sub-atomic charges reversed. Where atoms of matter consist of electrons (negative charge) orbiting protons (positive charge), antimatter is made up of positrons (positively charged electrons) orbiting antiprotons (negative charge). One property of antimatter that’s described similarly in both scientific texts and Star Trek episodes is that when matter and antimatter come in contact, they annihilate each other in a tremendous release of energy. That makes studying antimatter a tad difficult, to put it lightly.

Researchers in Geneva have announced that they have developed a system to isolate antimatter – specifically anti-hydrogen atoms – and keep them from contacting any matter.

To create antihydrogen and keep it from immediately annihilating, the ALPHA team cooled antiprotons and compressed them into a matchstick-size cloud. Then the researchers nudged this cloud of cold, compressed antiprotons so it overlapped with a like-size positron cloud, where the two particles mated to form antihydrogen.

All this happened inside a magnetic bottle that traps the antihydrogen atoms. The magnetic trap is a specially configured magnetic field that uses an unusual and expensive superconducting magnet to prevent the antimatter particles from running into the edges of the bottle — which is made of normal matter and would annihilate with the antimatter on contact.

“For the moment, we keep antihydrogen atoms around for at least 172 milliseconds — about a sixth of a second — long enough to make sure we have trapped them,” said Jonathan Wurtele, a University of California, Berkeley professor of physics and LBNL faculty scientist.

It’s not much and it’s not for long, but it’s a start. There are intriguing possibilities behind this research, not the least of which is energy production. We’re a long way from answering any questions that will raise but it was a necessary step to learn to actually hold this substance in practical terms. My hat’s off to those scientists. Stay vigilant and keep your heads in the game, both in terms of the science – the realm of what we can do – and the ethics – the realm of what we should do.