In a World First, Physicists Trap Elusive Atoms of Antimatter

By Andrew Moseman | November 18, 2010 10:42 am

AntimatterMachineIt’s a trap! (For antimatter.)

Researchers report this week in Nature that they’ve managed to corral atoms of antimatter in the lab and keep them around for about one-sixth of one second—an eternity in particle physics. The ability to trap these atoms means scientists could soon have the ability to study them directly, and perhaps answer one of the fundamental questions of the universe: Why the matter and antimatter present after the Big Bang didn’t annihilate each other completely and leave a matter-less universe behind.

Jeffery Hangst led the research team at CERN’s ALPHA collaboration.

It’s not easy, because of that mutual-annihilation issue. Hangst said the first trick was to combine the particles in a super-cold vacuum setting — less than 0.5 Kelvin, or -458.8 degrees Fahrenheit. That way, the particles don’t instantly jump away and fizzle out. The second trick is to build a magnetic trap to help contain the particles so that they don’t instantly decay. And there’s a third trick: designing a system capable of verifying that the atoms actually exist. “You must have a trap, and you must be cold, and you must be able to detect that you’ve done this,” Hangst said. [MSNBC]

By merging antiprotons (the antimatter version of protons) and positrons (the bizzaro electron), Hangst’s team created hundreds of thousands of anti-hydrogen atoms, of which they were able to trap a grand total of 38 for a fraction of a second. If the scientists can extend that time, Lawrence Berkeley Lab physicist Joel Fajans says, they can begin to play around with antimatter and figure out how it personality differs from ordinary matter’s, and why we live in a universe dominated by matter rather than its opposite.

“Antimatter seems to have disappeared,” Fajans said, “and no one knows why. It’s one of the fundamental mysteries of the Big Bang, and now that we know how to store it, we’ll soon have enough atoms of antimatter to hold in our hands long enough to study questions like how it behaves in real-world gravity, what its fundamental role was in the evolution of the universe and how it behaves when we excite it with laser beams.” [San Francisco Chronicle]

Indeed, it’s not every day an entirely new experimental avenue opens up, and other anti-hydrogen experiments are under way at CERN.

“It’s so exciting because now we can subject antihydrogen to anything anyone has ever done with hydrogen in the past,” says Hangst. “There are 100-odd years of atomic physics that we can learn how to do again with antiatoms.” [Science News]

Related Content:
80beats: In the Universe’s Decisive Battle, Why Did Matter Prevail Over Antimatter?
DISCOVER: The 11 Great Unanswered Questions of Physics
DISCOVER: Antimatter: The quest to answer the question, “Why do we exist?”
Cosmic Variance: Matter v. Antimatter 1: The Baryon Asymmetry

Image: CERN (Gold electrodes for the ALPHA trap)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Top Posts
  • Hal Bidlack

    seriously, seriously cool stuff

  • lacalaca

    Just to be clear, this isn’t the first experiment with antihydrogen, rather the first when they are trapped for more than a blink of an eye (of an atom). A little more and the first antispectral antilines can be experimentally measured! Yay!

  • rich f.

    whoa….way cool. cold, too.

  • John

    Question-How could one excite anti-matter with laser beams? Wouldn’t the interaction of particles (maybe I’m thinking too much [or not enough] about wave-particle duality) simply annihilate the antimatter rather than energize it? Any clarifications would be appreciated!

  • Chris Lindsay

    How soon before we create an anti-oxygen atom, combine it with two anti-hydrogen atoms, and get a molecule of anti-water?

  • Jim Ernst


    Photons are their own anti-particles.

  • furreal37

    makes me hungry for antipasto

  • Brian Too

    @7. furreal37,

    Make sure to keep that away from the pasto! Should they meet, there would be a pasto-antipasto reaction and the room would disappear in a blaze of social energy and exotic appetizer particles!

  • scribbler

    Quote: ” the room would disappear in a blaze of social energy”

    Unquote: Or would that be anti-social energy?

  • PJ

    Next year we will be announcing the creation of the worlds first antihydrogen bomb. Get yours while supplies last.

  • Jordan

    @PJ Ha and next will come anti-nuclear devices
    then wat anti-world war and anti-coldwar?

  • Trivious

    @John ~ This should help answer your question. . . Temperature

    “This time, it kept its antihydrogen cloud intact for more than 16 minutes by lowering the temperature of the antiprotons used to create the hydrogen much further, which lowered the overall energy inside their magnetic jar. The breakthrough should allow researchers to actually experiment on antihydrogen in coming years, helping them to answer some fundamental questions.

    For instance, it’s unknown whether gravity affects antimatter in the same way as it affects normal matter. That is, scientists don’t even know if antimatter falls up or falls down. Having containers of the stuff to observe will naturally help scientists probe these unknowns.”


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