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The magnet core of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet (CMS, Compact Muon Solenoid) is seen at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)'s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particule accelerator, in Geneva, Switzerland. (Martial Trezzini/AP)
The magnet core of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet (CMS, Compact Muon Solenoid) is seen at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)'s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particule accelerator, in Geneva, Switzerland. (Martial Trezzini/AP)

Physics

Unveiling the secrets of antimatter Add to ...

An international team of scientists has succeeded in storing antimatter atoms for a thousand seconds, opening a new window onto a fascinating substance that has eluded physicists for decades.

Being able to capture it is “a game-changer in antimatter research,” said Makoto Fujiwara, a Canadian particle physicist and the lead author of the findings.

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Antimatter is incredibly difficult to study because it is destroyed the moment it makes contact with anything, but the latest research stands to test fundamental theories of how the universe works and how it was formed – and to bring to life the stuff of science fiction and fantasy horror. Antimatter, after all, powered the Enterprise’s warp drive on Star Trek and played a central role in a foreboding Dan Brown narrative, in which the substance was used to frightening effect as a bomb.

But even if the scientists who study antimatter say those scenarios remain in the realm of science fiction, there has now been a major leap toward capturing and studying the elusive and destructive material.

In an advance that was reported online Sunday by the journal Nature Physics, physicists said they have been able to capture antimatter for more than 16 minutes, far exceeding the 0.2 seconds that was the previous record. That will allow more detailed study into the nature of antimatter, and it could one day provide insight into the existence of distant galaxies filled with antistars and antiplanets – a possibility that has been theorized but never proven.

Experiments testing the properties of antimatter will also test firmly held scientific beliefs about the nature of antimatter. If physicists find it is different than hypothesized, it will be “completely earth shattering within the physics area,” Dr. Fujiwara said.

“For the layperson, life wouldn’t change very much, necessarily. But you would have to rewrite the whole particle physics textbook.”

Dr. Fujiwara was one of about 40 physicists – a third of them Canadian, supported by $1.5-million in federal funding – who devised a high-tech bottle to trap antihydrogen. It’s a substance that has only been reliably produced since 2002, but never before captured for long enough to study.

Antimatter is the inverse of matter. Take hydrogen, the simplest element. A hydrogen atom has one positively charged proton and a negatively charged electron. Antihydrogen is identical, except that it has a negatively charged proton, called an antiproton, and a positively charged electron, called a positron.

Scientists believe that after the Big Bang, some 14 billion years ago, the universe was made up of equal parts matter and antimatter.

“But if you look at the universe now, everything is made of matter – humans, the Earth, the solar system,” said Dr. Fujiwara, an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary and a researcher at the TRIUMF particle and nuclear physics lab in Vancouver. “So one of the mysteries in science is what happened to antimatter.”

If they are able to find some difference between matter and antimatter, “that may give you a clue to the question of why and what happened to anti-matter,” he said.

But antimatter is difficult to study, because it is destroyed the moment it makes contact with matter. That property is what has given rise to fears about antimatter, since a half-gram of the substance is as destructive as the bomb detonated over Hiroshima. Researchers say such fears are unfounded, since at current production rates it would take two-billion years to make that much antimatter.

Still, even tiny amounts can yield fascinating scientific secrets. That’s why the work of Dr. Fujiwara and the international scientists on what was called the ALPHA project is so important.

They brewed up the antihydrogen inside a stainless steel cylinder roughly five centimetres in diameter and 25 centimetres in length. They created a vacuum inside the bottle and chilled it to four degrees above absolute zero – or roughly -269 Celsius. The extreme cold slowed the newly formed antihydrogen, making it hard for it to speed away. And an extremely powerful magnet helped keep the anti-atoms in place.

Even then, the researchers succeeded in capturing a vanishingly small percentage of the anti-atoms – a testament to the difficulty of the work.

“We created something like 6,000 anti-atoms in one trial, but we only trapped about one per trial,” Dr. Fujiwara said.

That slim success rate is far better than earlier efforts. But it still goes to show that “there’s much room for improvement,” said Cliff Surko, a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego, who has written a commentary on the ALPHA research.

Still, he said, the successful trapping is a “very significant development and exceedingly encouraging” for those who plan to see whether antihydrogen exhibits similar optical, gravitational and magnetic properties to hydrogen. Those studies could prove very difficult – indeed, it took more than two decades of work to trap antimatter as the ALPHA project did.

But physicists say antimatter is fascinating enough to merit the effort.

With “anti-matter we have this whole new kind of material,” Prof. Surko said. “Whether there will be practical applications of anti-atoms, I don’t know. But it’s the kind of thing that, as scientists, we simply can’t pass up studying.”

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