Physicists build bigger 'bottles' of antimatter to unlock nature's secrets

Feb 18, 2011
UCSD physicists James Danielson, Clifford Surko and Craig Schallhorn (left to right) inspect the apparatus they are using to develop the world's largest trap for low-energy positrons, planned to hold a trillion or more antiparticles. Credit: Kim McDonald, UCSD

Once regarded as the stuff of science fiction, antimatter—the mirror image of the ordinary matter in our observable universe—is now the focus of laboratory studies around the world.

While physicists routinely produce antimatter with radioisotopes and particle colliders, cooling these antiparticles and containing them for any length of time is another story. Once antimatter comes into contact with ordinary matter it "annihilates"—or disappears in a flash of gamma radiation.

Clifford Surko, a professor of physics at UC San Diego who is constructing what he hopes will be the world's largest antimatter container, said physicists have recently developed new methods to make special states of antimatter in which they can create large clouds of antiparticles, compress them and make specially tailored beams for a variety of uses.

He described the progress made in this area, including his own efforts, at the annual meeting in Washington, DC, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His talk, "Taming Dirac's Particle," led off the session entitled "Through the Looking Glass: Recent Adventures in Antimatter," on February 18.

Surko said that since "positrons"—the anti-electrons predicted by English physicist Paul Dirac some 80 years ago—disappear in a burst of gamma rays whenever they come in contact with ordinary matter, accumulating and storing these antimatter particles is no small feat. But over the past few years, he added, researchers have developed new techniques to store billions of positrons for hours or more and cool them to low temperatures in order to slow their movements so they can be studied.

Surko said physicists are now able to slow positrons from radioactive sources to low energy and accumulate and store them for days in specially designed "bottles" that have magnetic and electric fields as walls rather than matter. They have also developed methods to cool them to temperatures as low as that of liquid helium and to compress them to high densities.

"One can then carefully push them out of the bottle in a thin stream, a beam, much like squeezing a tube of toothpaste," said Surko, adding that there are a variety of uses for such positrons.

A familiar positron technique that does not use this new technology is the PET scan, also known as Positron Emission Tomography, which is now used routinely to study human metabolic processes and help design new drugs.

In the new methods being developed by physicists, beams of positrons will be used in other ways. "These beams provide new ways to study how antiparticles interact or react with ordinary matter," said Surko. "They are very useful, for example, in understanding the properties of material surfaces."

Surko and his collaborators at UC San Diego are studying how positrons bind to ordinary matter, such as atoms and molecules. "While these complexes only last a billionth of a second or so," he said, "the 'stickiness' of the positron is an important facet of the chemistry of matter and antimatter."

Surko and his colleagues are building the world's largest trap for low-energy positrons in his laboratory at UC San Diego, capable of storing more than a trillion antimatter particles at one time.

"We are now working to accumulate trillions of positrons or more in a novel 'multi-cell' trap—an array of magnetic bottles akin to a hotel with many rooms, with each room containing tens of billions of antiparticles," he said.

"These developments are enabling many new studies of nature. Examples include the formation and study of antihydrogen, the antimatter counterpart of hydrogen; the investigation of electron-positron plasmas, similar to those believed to be present at the magnetic poles of neutron stars, using a device now being developed at Columbia University; and the creation of much larger bursts of positrons which could eventually enable the creation of an annihilation gamma ray laser."

"An exciting long-term goal of the work is the creation of portable traps for ," added Surko. "This would increase greatly the ability to use and exploit antiparticles in our matter world in situations where radioisotope- or accelerator-based positron sources are inconvenient to arrange."

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Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (5) Feb 18, 2011
Wow, a multi-million dollar piece of equipment jus to store about 150 joules worth of positrons, 300 joules if you count the ordinary matter they could annihilate with...
axemaster
4.6 / 5 (9) Feb 18, 2011
Wow, a multi-million dollar piece of equipment jus to store about 150 joules worth of positrons, 300 joules if you count the ordinary matter they could annihilate with...

In other news, researchers report that 50% of the human race is dumber than average... They report feeling discouraged by this revelation.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) Feb 18, 2011
In other news, researchers report that 50% of the human race is dumber than average... They report feeling discouraged by this revelation.
Oh, I'm sure it's much more than that.

Antimatter beams, gamma ray lasers, somebody's having a lot of fun. I got to fire off an early x-ray laser a long time ago, but all it did was go pop.
jscroft
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2011
Wow, a multi-million dollar piece of equipment jus to store about 150 joules worth of positrons, 300 joules if you count the ordinary matter they could annihilate with...


Scale that up by twelve orders of magnitude and you'll get a megaton detonation just by turning off the containment field. That's about 44 doublings of containment capacity from here.

Don't look now, but the antimatter bomb is right around the corner.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.1 / 5 (7) Feb 19, 2011
Wow, a multi-million dollar piece of equipment jus to store about 150 joules worth of positrons, 300 joules if you count the ordinary matter they could annihilate with...


Scale that up by twelve orders of magnitude and you'll get a megaton detonation just by turning off the containment field. That's about 44 doublings of containment capacity from here.

Don't look now, but the antimatter bomb is right around the corner.
A beam weapon/tool in space would be useful for slicing and dicing all sorts of natural and manmade objects.
Beard
not rated yet Feb 19, 2011
Don't look now, but the antimatter bomb is right around the corner.


What's the point of weaponizing it? It won't change the dynamics of MAD.
sstritt
not rated yet Feb 19, 2011
Don't look now, but the antimatter bomb is right around the corner.

That would be impossibly expensive and wouldn't even make a good bomb. Just because you have a megaton's worth of energy doesn't mean it would explode instantly like a nuke. It would be a giant fizzle like a pile of gunpowder out in the open.
A beam weapon/tool in space would be useful for slicing and dicing all sorts of natural and manmade objects.
much better idea!
Ricochet
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
You have to wonder if he's doing the evil mad scientist laugh in his head when he says "annihilation gamma ray laser".
jscroft
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2011
That would be impossibly expensive...


... because antimatter is currently very expensive to make and impossible to store in large quantities. But it's cheaper to make now than in the past, and we can store more of it longer than we could in the past.

Why would you expect the profile of THIS technology's advance to be any less exponential than any other technology's?
jscroft
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2011
... and wouldn't even make a good bomb. Just because you have a megaton's worth of energy doesn't mean it would explode instantly like a nuke...


A nuke doesn't explode AT ALL... unless it is ENGINEERED to do so. I guess I just took it as read that an antimatter bomb-maker to do that.

What's the point of weaponizing it? It won't change the dynamics of MAD.


It changes the whole equation.

Currently the ability to manufacture nukes is limited to countries that have access to (a) a VERY rare natural resource, and (b) highly controlled, single-purpose technology. Odds are that the main elements required to produce lots of antimatter will be a particle accelerator--GENERAL-purpose technology--and lots of power. No rare resources, much harder to control.

Plus: virtually no radioactive fallout, a MUCH more powerful gamma pulse for a given bomb weight, and a containment system that effectively acts as a dead-man fuse.

Hoo-yah. Welcome to the future.
Ronan
5 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2011
So. Who's up for combining this with the article about a year back about an experiment testing time dilation using lasers and cesium atoms (search "Most precise test yet of Einstein's gravitational redshift" on physorg to get the article) to get a really beautiful test to figure out whether or not antimatter exhibits antigravitational properties or not?

The primary issue that occurs to me is the much smaller mass of the antimatter particles relative to a cesium atom (leading to a longer matter-wave wavelength and less easily detectable interference), but it's only an order of magnitude difference or so; it ought to be possible to work one's way around that with sufficiently sensitive instrumentation. Let it be so!
jscroft
3 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2011
@Ronan: Holy cow! I have to hand it to you, I had no idea matter-antimatter gravitational interactions were even an open question. Here ya go: http://en[dot]wikipedia[dot]org/wiki/Gravitational_interaction_of_antimatter

My money's on a normal interaction, though, based on a thoroughly hand-wavy hunch involving mass-energy equivalence and the fact that a photon is its own antiparticle.
elbeasto
not rated yet Feb 23, 2011
A beam weapon/tool in space would be useful for slicing and dicing all sorts of natural and manmade objects.


Did anyone else read this and instantly think.. lightsaber?

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