Scientists close in on antimatter

2011-06-06 09:30

Paris - Scientists said on Sunday they had trapped and stored antihydrogen atoms for a record 16 minutes, a stunning technical feat that promises deeper insights into the mysteries of antimatter.

Particles and anti-particles annihilate each other in a small flash of energy when they collide.

At the moment of the big bang, nearly 14 billion years ago, matter and antimatter are thought to have existed in equal quantities. If that balance had persisted, the observable Universe we inhabit would never have come into being.

For unknown reasons - and fortunately for us - Nature seemed to have a slight preference for matter, and today antimatter is rare. This asymmetry remains one of the greatest riddles in particle physics.

Ongoing low-energy experiments with hydrogen atoms could be a key step toward solving it.

High-energy accelerator

"We can keep the antihydrogen atoms trapped for 1 000 seconds. This is long enough to begin to study them - even with the small number that we can catch so far," said Jeffrey Hangst, spokesperson for the Alpha team conducting the tests at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva.

In the study, published in the journal Nature Physics, researchers report trapping some 300 anti-atoms.

Scientists used Cern's high-energy accelerator to create the antihydrogen atoms, and then cooled them to near absolute zero temperatures (-273°C).

The aim is to use laser and microwave spectroscopy to compare the immobilised particles to their hydrogen counterparts.

The same team succeeded in 2010 in trapping dozens of antimatter atoms and holding them in place for a fraction of a second, a world first at the time.

But that was not long enough for the excitable particles to settle into the stable "ground" state needed for precise measurements.

The new benchmark extended this storage time 5 000 fold, making it possible to carry out crucial experiments.

Scientists will now look for "violations" or discrepancies in something called the charge-parity-time reversal (CPT) symmetry.

Spectral profile

CPT says that a particle moving forward through time in our universe should be indistinguishable from an antiparticle moving backwards through time in a mirror universe.

According to this rule, hydrogen and antihydrogen, in other words, should have exactly the same spectral profile.

"Any hint of CPT symmetry breaking would require a serious rethink of our understanding of nature," Hangst in a statement.

"But half the universe has gone missing, so some kind of rethink is apparently on the agenda."

The absence of any solid theoretical prediction of how CPT-violation will occur - or, indeed, if it will happen at all - suggests to what extent the experiments will be breaking new ground.

The "C" of CPT involves swapping the electric charges of the particles. "P" for parity "is like looking in the mirror", Cern explained in a press release. And "T" means reversing the trajectory of time.

Measurements of trapped antihydrogen are due to get underway shortly, and could yield results before the end of the year.

"If you hit the trapped antihydrogen atoms with just the right microwave frequency, they will escape from the trap and we can detect the annihilation," Hangst said.

"It will be the first time anybody has interacted with anti-atoms to probe their structure."

The ability to store bits of antimatter for a quarter of an hour - far longer that researchers expected - could also provide a new way to measure how they are influenced by gravity, Hangst added.

  • saturnz - 2011-06-06 10:27

    when referring to anti matter I think they most referring to the charge where matter is positively charged and anti matter negatively charged, by the way anti matter technology is already used in some medical tests.

  • MarkJM - 2011-06-06 10:43

    Now to figure out how to use anti-matter as an energy source, and ultimately as a fuel for inter-stellar propulsion... WARP DRIVE! :)

      Ben - 2011-06-06 11:16

      R10 says it'll be used as a weapon first...

      Uwe Klopfer - 2011-06-06 11:30

      hyper space...nice... didn't someone say once upon a time that science fiction eventually becomes science fact ? i wish they would hurry it up. those romulans or wraith or something better whatch out :) here we come :D

      Martin du Plessis - 2011-06-06 11:55

      BEN, thats because it's incredibly EASY to use it as a weapon. The fact that it has an opposite charge to regular matter, ie everything around you, means that when it comes into contact with the regular matter, the 2 equal but opposite charges then neutralize each other, releasing ALL the energy in both atoms in one go (e=mc2 anyone?) which can give a LOT more energy release than your usual nuke, since nukes only use up a small amount of the total fissionabal material (which is why nukes leave radioactive wastelands, the other large amount of radioactive materials NOT used up but spread ALL OVER the region by the explosion releasing radiation) With anti-matter, even a few grams would be enough to dwarf even the biggest thermobaric bombs in existance. The problem is making it NOT explode up untill the moment you need it to.

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 12:08

      Cthulhu is not ammused.

      Jacques Jones - 2011-06-06 13:20

      @Ben chances are that you are correct.

  • Han Solo - 2011-06-06 11:05

    You're getting there earth people... you're getting there.

      Uwe Klopfer - 2011-06-06 11:30

      nice one

  • Uwe Klopfer - 2011-06-06 11:39

    what i find interesting about the CPT is the "t" : "And "T" means reversing the trajectory of time" trajectory to where ? back into time ? Assume this : Your graphical representation of time would be say to the right and up on a constant line, assuming gravity and mass in the surrounding space in constant. How would they be able to measure if something goes backwards in time ? Does this mean time travel is possible ? Even if only for anti matter ? Isn't that why half the mass is missing ? become it is 13 odd billion years on the other side of the start of time ? Just a few questions from a curious mind :)

      Shistirrer - 2011-06-06 12:35

      If the antimatter travels backwards through time, it means that the 300 atoms caught and trapped by CERN do not exist yet, they will only be created sometime in the future. Curiouser and curiouser...

      Zion - 2011-06-06 13:06

      The only known particle that can go back in time is the tachyon and that can only be done beyond the speed of light. In fact the tachyon can only move faster than light, and hence can only move in the past. As far as I can ascertain the tachyon has never been "caught" yet and if it has then it cannot be so or can only have been in the past. Lekker ne.

      Zion - 2011-06-06 13:13

      Shistirrer. An atom has all these goodies orbiting it. That means there is movement. It takes time for any movement to take place. So stop time then movement cannot take place. nogal simple ne, but stopping time is hard to do so you stop movement (motion) By freezing it to absolute zero. So time stops for the anti-particle because those orbiting goodies have stopped orbiting.

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 15:58

      Time != movement. Movement is a product of time, time is NOT a product of movement.

      shane.jacoby - 2011-08-23 16:03

      Hi... This is why it would be so important to study antimatter. Einsteins theory E=MC2 includes the discussion on time dilation. Meaning that time can be influenced by mass hence his theory on relativity of time. This means if they can prove the existence of the Higgs-Boson in junction with the latest information on Antimatter, then it would be possible to manipulate time itself. The problem however that we face is that scientist have not yet been able to encounter time in its physicality. But yes, the fact that there is Antimatter, means we could travel into the past physically. The problem is manipulating time as a physical component. With the latest theories being proven physically, means that in the not so distant future, we will be able to travel great distances at the speed of light and time would be a closely guarded portal as an element.

  • Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 12:06

    I can't wait until the anti-matter spectrometer causes a resonance cascade.

      Martin du Plessis - 2011-06-06 13:47


      Risen Ape - 2011-06-06 14:12

      Ek is effe verbaas om jou hier te kry. Is jy nie meer van ‘n filosofiese tipe wat nog gode aanbid nie?

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 15:37

      Is jy jaloers dat ek ook belangstel in die wetenskap?

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 16:02

      @Martin. I'm glad someone caught the reference. I was beginning to feel old. They're waiting for you, Gordon. In the TEST CHAMBER.

      NuttyZA - 2011-06-06 16:17

      Donkie... Half LIfe is not THAT old... I still remember playing Space Invaders on my Atari 2600 Console... I actually sat playing for 12 hours solid and clocked the game- Space Invaders, not Half Life (think the score went up to 1 000 000)

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 19:03

      Half Life came out 12 years ago. Scary stuff.

  • Grant - 2011-06-06 12:52

    I'd love for someone to explain exactly what they "detect" when they catch this antimatter? Also, has there been any theories on what actually sparked the big bang? If nothing exists, then nothing is changing. If nothing changes, how can something RESULT?

      Risen Ape - 2011-06-06 13:54

      Nothing is believed to be unstable so it quickly collapses into something which is why the Big Bang happened.

      Hoofbite - 2011-06-06 14:34 Instead of waiting for someone to explain it to you, do the intellectually honest thing and work it out for yourself.

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 16:06

      It's a confusion of terms to call "nothing" unstable. What our primate is referring to is the quantum vacuum, which is not nothing. It can more accurately be described as pure energy.

      Grant - 2011-06-06 16:16

      If that were the case, matter and anti-matter would not revert to nothing simply by touching. Also, if nothing is so unstable, then surely it should be converting into "somethings" all the time??

      Risen Ape - 2011-06-06 17:26

      @ Vaal Donkie, I hope your sudden interest in science means you have finally given up on the ridiculous and smug convictions of metaphysics. “I prefer Mother Nature to Father God.”

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-06 19:05

      Why should I have to give up one or the other? One deals with HOW, the other with WHY.

      Risen Ape - 2011-06-06 20:48

      Mythology doesn’t answer anything, its fiction. But hey, if your creationist beliefs don’t inflict your brain with cognitive dissonance then by all means enjoy yourself here and welcome.

  • modau22 - 2011-06-06 14:33

    why at once scientist can"t just sit and enjoy a normal life like eating , sleeping , drinking instead of complicating already complicated subjects

      Martin du Plessis - 2011-06-06 14:54

      It keeps them busy. Would you REALLY want those very smart ppl sitting around at home with nothing to do? they could end up doing ANYTHING. Better they stay at cern and leave the mutant elephant-eating ferns for Sci-fi

  • Chiron - 2011-06-06 14:46

    @Risen Ape - nature abhors a vacuum?

      Martin du Plessis - 2011-06-06 14:56

      Nature might Abhor them, but moms just LOVE them.

      Vaal Donkie - 2011-06-07 09:39

      Martin wins the comments.

  • Pupuzela - 2011-06-06 15:26

    Hi Martin, my understanding is that when matter and antimatter collide, there is indeed a great release of energy - that is correct, it is however only DETECTABLE - not visible.

      Martin du Plessis - 2011-06-07 10:03

      Possibly, i might have that wrong, and certainly only if 2 atoms collide. But with more, the energy WILL convert into an explosion, say about a Gram of the stuff.

  • Janbantjies - 2011-09-29 13:56

    These scientests have overlooked Africa - there`s plenty of of antimatter here - anti everything in fact.

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