Scientists put antimatter on standby for over 16 minutes

Star Trek-style interstellar travel edged a step closer with the news that CERN scientists have trapped antimatter particles for over 16 minutes.

Antimatter has been baffling scientists for some time as they have attempted to work out why antimatter such as antihydrogen, which is made up of a negatively charged antiproton in the nucleus and a “bound, positively charged antielectron”, is not present in the visible universe.

It is thought that it should have been produced in equal amounts to matter during the Big Bang, however there is no evidence of antimatter galaxies, with the elusive material only visible for fleeting moments.

And this is what makes the ability to control its production by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, such a fascinating prospect.

According to researchers, antihydrogen atoms are becoming trapped on an increasingly frequent basis, and the researcher team has now managed to hold the antimatter particles for such a time that they believe it will be possible to begin experimenting with it.

It is not the first that antimatter particles have been created, but the amount of time that they have been trapped is significant, increasing the time from just a few seconds to over quarter of an hour, or “forever” in terms of particle physics, says one of the scientists.

Joel Fajans, a UC Berkeley professor and member of the Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) experiment at CERN, is now hoping that by next year continued experimentation will enable “laser access to allow spectroscopic experiments on the antiatoms”.

The team were able to trap 112 antiatoms for times ranging from a fifth of a second up to 16 minutes and 40 seconds, so still a while off joining Captain Kirk and his crew on an intergalactic jolly, it is a remarkable development nonetheless.

Also highly significant is that during the experiments it was possible to capture an antiatom in almost every attempt made, with the scientists claiming that between 10-30 minutes is sufficient time for most experiments.

Antimatter has so far been difficult to create for more than small amounts of time, with one reason being that it is difficult to contain.

The scientists were able to hold the antihydrogen cocktail by mixing antielectrons and positrons in a “bottle” in a vacuum chamber using the magnetic properties of the antiatoms to keep them contained.

“The developments are mostly in understanding the early universe,” said Mark Lancaster, a particle physics professor at University College London.

“That said anti-matter is already used routinely for medical and material imaging. The same technique of using nuclear isotopes is used to produce positrons that annihilate with electrons in the body and the resulting gamma rays can be detected to image the body in a process known as positron-emission-tomography (PET). Most hospitals now have PET scanners.”

Unfortunately, professor Lancaster dampened our hopes of fuelling long distance space flights.

“Anti-matter is also being contemplated as a fuel for powering space probes,” he said, “although at present the inherent inefficiency in producing sufficient anti-matter makes this prohibitively expensive and time consuming.”

A normal bottle, even a can holding the universe’s second most volatile material – Special Brew – would immediately implode as ordinary matter and antimatter would annihilate each other.