CERN scientists get antimatter ready for its first road trip
Antimatter is notoriously tricky to store and study, thanks to the fact that it will vanish in a burst of energy if it so much as touches regular matter. The CERN lab is one of the only places in the world that can readily produce the stuff, but getting it into the hands of the scientists who want to study it is another matter (pun not intended). After all, how can you transport something that will annihilate any physical container you place it in? Now, CERN researchers are planning to trap and truck antimatter from one facility to another.
Antimatter is basically the evil twin of normal matter. Each antimatter particle is identical to its ordinary counterpart in almost every way, except it carries the opposite charge, leading the two to destroy each other if they come into contact. Neutron stars and jets of plasma from black holes may be natural sources, and it even seems to be formed in the Earth's atmosphere with every bolt of lightning.
Studying antimatter could help us unlock some of the Universe's most profound mysteries – but, of course, the Universe isn't giving up those answers easily. Positrons (or anti-electrons) were the first antimatter particles to be observed in experiments in the 1930s, and like regular matter, these antiparticles clump together to form atoms of antimatter.
Antihydrogen atoms were first created at CERN in 1995, but it wasn't until 2010 that scientists managed to trap and study them properly – even if only for fractions of a second. In 2011, researchers managed to hold onto the antimatter atoms for a solid 16 minutes, allowing them to eventually study their spectra to see how they compare to regular old hydrogen.
Nowadays, CERN can readily produce antiprotons in a particle decelerator, slowing them down to be captured in a specially-designed trap. But to really make the most of them, it's time for the volatile substance to leave the nest, and be put to work in other areas of research.
The goal of CERN's antiProton Unstable Matter Annihilation (PUMA) project is to get antimatter ready for its maiden voyage to another facility. The first destination isn't very far away – just a few hundred meters – but even a journey that short will require years of research and development.
The team is designing a new trap that locks antiprotons in a "bottle", keeping the atoms suspended in the center with powerful magnetic and electric fields. The atoms will be stored in a vacuum like that of intergalactic space, and at a temperature slightly above absolute zero. Ideally the trap will be able to store a billion antiprotons at once, over 100 times more than any existing technology, and keep them there for several weeks at a time.
The trap will then be loaded onto a van and driven to the site of a nearby project known as ISOLDE, which plans to use the antimatter to experiment with rare radioactive isotopes and eventually understand neutron stars.
"It's almost science fiction to be driving around antimatter in a truck," says Charles Horowitz, a theoretical nuclear physicist working on the project. "It's a wonderful idea."
But this won't be getting on the road anytime soon. The team says development and testing will take about four years, and if that trip goes as planned, the technology could allow antimatter to travel even further, giving other scientists around the world access to this valuable tool.
"As soon as they can demonstrate one billion protons and keep them for several weeks, then many more experiments will join, and people with new ideas will come," says Chloé Malbrunot, an antimatter physicist at CERN. "I think it will really open up the field."