- For other senses of this term, see antimatter (disambiguation).
In particle physics and quantum chemistry, antimatter extends the concept of the antiparticle to matter, whereby antimatter is composed of antiparticles in the same way that normal matter is composed of particles. For example an antielectron (a positron, an electron with a positive charge) and an antiproton (a proton with a negative charge) could form an antihydrogen atom in the same way that an electron and a proton form a normal matter hydrogen atom. Furthermore, mixing of matter and antimatter would lead to the annihilation of both in the same way that mixing of antiparticles and particles does, thus giving rise to high-energy photons (gamma rays) or other particle–antiparticle pairs. The particles resulting from matter-antimatter annihilation are endowed with energy equal to the difference between the rest mass of the products of the annihilation and the rest mass of the original matter-antimatter pair, which is often quite large.
There is considerable speculation both in science and science fiction as to why the observable universe is apparently almost entirely matter, whether other places are almost entirely antimatter instead, and what might be possible if antimatter could be harnessed, but at this time the apparent asymmetry of matter and antimatter in the visible universe is one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics. Possible processes by which it came about are explored in more detail under baryogenesis.
In December 1927 Paul Dirac developed a relativistic equation for the electron, now known as the Dirac equation. Curiously, the equation was found to have negative-energy solutions in addition to the normal positive ones. This presented a problem, as electrons tend toward the lowest possible energy level; energies of negative infinity are nonsensical. As a way of getting around this, Dirac proposed that the vacuum is filled with a "sea" of negative-energy electrons, the Dirac sea. Any real electrons would therefore have to sit on top of the sea, having positive energy.
Thinking further, Dirac found that a "hole" in the sea would have a positive charge. At first he thought that this was the proton, but Hermann Weyl pointed out that the hole should have the same mass as the electron. The existence of this particle, the positron, was confirmed experimentally in 1932 by Carl D. Anderson. During this period, antimatter was sometimes also known as "contraterrene matter".
Today's Standard Model shows that every particle has an antiparticle, for which each additive quantum number has the negative of the value it has for the normal matter particle. The sign reversal applies only to quantum numbers (properties) which are additive, such as charge, but not to mass, for example. The positron has the opposite charge but the same mass as the electron. For particles whose additive quantum numbers are all zero, the particle may be its own antiparticle; such particles include the photon and the neutral pion.
The artificial production of atoms of antimatter (specifically antihydrogen) first became a reality in the early 1990s. An atom of antihydrogen is composed of a negatively-charged antiproton being orbited by a positively-charged positron. Stanley Brodsky, Ivan Schmidt and Charles Munger at SLAC realized that an antiproton, traveling at relativistic speeds and passing close to the nucleus of an atom, would have the potential to force the creation of an electron-positron pair. It was postulated that under this scenario the antiproton would have a small chance of pairing with the positron (ejecting the electron) to form an antihydrogen atom.
In 1995 CERN announced that it had successfully created nine antihydrogen atoms by implementing the SLAC/Fermilab concept during the PS210 experiment. The experiment was performed using the Low Energy Antiproton Ring (LEAR), and was led by Walter Oelert and Mario Macri. Fermilab soon confirmed the CERN findings by producing approximately 100 antihydrogen atoms at their facilities.
The antihydrogen atoms created during PS210, and subsequent experiments (at both CERN and Fermilab) were extremely energetic ("hot") and were not well suited to study. To resolve this hurdle, and to gain a better understanding of antihydrogen, two collaborations were formed in the late 1990s — ATHENA and ATRAP. The primary goal of these collaborations is the creation of less energetic ("cold") antihydrogen, better suited to study.
In 1999 CERN activated the Antiproton Decelerator, a device capable of decelerating antiprotons from 3.5 GeV to 5.3 MeV — still too "hot" to produce study-effective antihydrogen, but a huge leap forward. In late 2002 the ATHENA project announced that they had created the world's first "cold" antihydrogen. The antiprotons used in the experiment were cooled sufficiently by decelerating them (using the Antiproton Decelerator), passing them through a thin sheet of foil, and finally capturing them in a Penning trap. The antiprotons also underwent stochastic cooling at several stages during the process.
The ATHENA team's antiproton cooling process is effective, but highly inefficient. Approximately 25 million antiprotons leave the Antiproton Decelerator; roughly 10 thousand make it to the Penning trap. In early 2004 ATHENA researchers released data on a new method of creating low-energy antihydrogen. The technique involves slowing antiprotons using the Antiproton Decelerator, and injecting them into a Penning trap (specifically a Penning-Malmberg trap). Once trapped the antiprotons are mixed with electrons that have been cooled to an energy potential significantly less than the antiprotons; the resulting Coulomb collisions cool the antiprotons while warming the electrons until the particles reach an equilibrium of approximately 4 K.
While the antiprotons are being cooled in the first trap, a small cloud of positron plasma is injected into a second trap (the mixing trap). Exciting the resonance of the mixing trap’s confinement fields can control the temperature of the positron plasma; but the procedure is more effective when the plasma is in thermal equilibrium with the trap’s environment. The positron plasma cloud is generated in a positron accumulator prior to injection; the source of the positrons is usually radioactive sodium.
Once the antiprotons are sufficiently cooled, the antiproton-electron mixture is transferred into the mixing trap (containing the positrons). The electrons are subsequently removed by a series of fast pulses in the mixing trap's electrical field. When the antiprotons reach the positron plasma further Coulomb collisions occur, resulting in further cooling of the antiprotons. When the positrons and antiprotons approach thermal equilibrium antihydrogen atoms begin to form. Being electrically neutral the antihydrogen atoms are not affected by the trap and can leave the confinement fields.
Using this method ATHENA researchers predict they will be able to create up to 100 antihydrogen atoms per operational second. ATHENA and ATRAP are now seeking to further cool the antihydrogen atoms by subjecting them to an inhomogeneous field. While antihydrogen atoms are electrically neutral, their spin produces magnetic moments. These magnetic moments vary depending on the spin direction of the atom, and can be deflected by inhomogeneous fields regardless of electrical charge.
The biggest limiting factor in the production of antimatter is the availability of antiprotons. Recent data released by CERN states that when fully operational their facilities are capable of producing 107 antiprotons per second. Assuming an optimal conversion of antiprotons to antihydrogen, it would take two billion years to produce 1 gram of antihydrogen. Another limiting factor to antimatter production is storage. As stated above there is no known way to effectively store antihydrogen. The ATHENA project has managed to keep antihydrogen atoms from annihilation for tens of seconds — just enough time to briefly study their behaviour.
CERN laboratories, which produces antimatter on a regular basis, said:
|“||If we could assemble all of the antimatter we've ever made at CERN and annihilate it with matter, we would have enough energy to light a single electric light bulb for a few minutes.||”|
Naturally occurring production
Antiparticles are created everywhere in the universe where high-energy particle collisions take place. High-energy cosmic rays impacting Earth's atmosphere (or any other matter in the solar system) produce minute quantities of antimatter in the resulting particle jets, which are immediately annihilated by contact with nearby matter. It may similarly be produced in regions like the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and other galaxies, where very energetic celestial events occur (principally the interaction of relativistic jets with the interstellar medium). The presence of the resulting antimatter is detectable by the gamma rays produced when it annihilates with nearby matter.
Antiparticles are also produced in any environment with a sufficiently high temperature (mean particle energy greater than the pair production threshold). During the period of baryogenesis, when the universe was extremely hot and dense, matter and antimatter were continually produced and annihilated. The presence of remaining matter, and absence of detectable remaining antimatter, also called baryon asymmetry, is attributed to violation of the CP-symmetry relating matter and antimatter. The exact mechanism of this violation during baryogenesis remains a mystery.
Positrons are also produced from the radioactive decay of nuclides such as carbon-11, nitrogen-13, oxygen-15, fluorine-18, and iodine-121
Antimatter-matter reactions have practical applications in medical imaging, such as positron emission tomography (PET). In positive beta decay, a nuclide loses surplus positive charge by emitting a positron (in the same event, a proton becomes a neutron, and neutrinos are also given off). Nuclides with surplus positive charge are easily made in a cyclotron and are widely generated for medical use.
In antimatter-matter collisions resulting in photon emission, the entire rest mass of the particles is converted to kinetic energy. The energy per unit mass (9×1016 J/kg) is about 10 orders of magnitude greater than chemical energy (compared to TNT at 4.2×106 J/kg, and formation of water at 1.56×107 J/kg), about 4 orders of magnitude greater than nuclear energy that can be liberated today using nuclear fission (about 40 MeV per 238U nucleus transmuted to Lead, or 1.5×1013 J/kg), and about 2 orders of magnitude greater than the best possible from fusion (about 6.3×1014 J/kg for the proton-proton chain). The reaction of 1 kg of antimatter with 1 kg of matter would produce 1.8×1017 J (180 petajoules) of energy (by the mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc²), or the rough equivalent of 43 megatons of TNT.
Not all of that energy can be utilized by any realistic technology, because as much as 50% of energy produced in reactions between nucleons and antinucleons is carried away by neutrinos, so, for all intents and purposes, it can be considered lost.
The scarcity of antimatter means that it is not readily available to be used as fuel, although it could be used in antimatter catalyzed nuclear pulse propulsion. Generating a single antiproton is immensely difficult and requires particle accelerators and vast amounts of energy—millions of times more than is released after it is annihilated with ordinary matter, due to inefficiencies in the process. Known methods of producing antimatter from energy also produce an equal amount of normal matter, so the theoretical limit is that half of the input energy is converted to antimatter. Counterbalancing this, when antimatter annihilates with ordinary matter, energy equal to twice the mass of the antimatter is liberated—so energy storage in the form of antimatter could (in theory) be 100% efficient. Antimatter production is currently very limited, but has been growing at a nearly geometric rate since the discovery of the first antiproton in 1955. The current antimatter production rate is between 1 and 10 nanograms per year, and this is expected to increase to between 3 and 30 nanograms per year by 2015 or 2020 with new superconducting linear accelerator facilities at CERN and Fermilab. Some researchers claim that with current technology, it is possible to obtain antimatter for US$25 million per gram by optimizing the collision and collection parameters (given current electricity generation costs). Antimatter production costs, in mass production, are almost linearly tied in with electricity costs, so economical pure-antimatter thrust applications are unlikely to come online without the advent of such technologies as deuterium-tritium fusion power (assuming that such a power source actually would prove to be cheap). Many experts, however, dispute these claims as being far too optimistic by many orders of magnitude. They point out that in 2004; the annual production of antiprotons at CERN was several picograms at a cost of $20 million. This means to produce 1 gram of antimatter, CERN would need to spend 100 quadrillion dollars and run the antimatter factory for 100 billion years. Storage is another problem, as antiprotons are negatively charged and repel against each other, so that they cannot be concentrated in a small volume. Plasma oscillations in the charged cloud of antiprotons can cause instabilities that drive antiprotons out of the storage trap. For these reasons, to date only a few million antiprotons have been stored simultaneously in a magnetic trap, which corresponds to much less than a femtogram. Antihydrogen atoms or molecules are neutral so in principle they do not suffer the plasma problems of antiprotons described above. But cold antihydrogen is far more difficult to produce than antiprotons, and so far not a single antihydrogen atom has been trapped in a magnetic field.
Several NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts-funded studies are exploring whether it might be possible to use magnetic scoops to collect the antimatter that occurs naturally in the Van Allen belts of Earth, and ultimately, the belts of gas giants like Jupiter, hopefully at a lower cost per gram.
Since the energy density is vastly higher than these other forms, the thrust to weight equation used in antimatter rocketry and spacecraft would be very different. In fact, the energy in a few grams of antimatter is enough to transport an unmanned spacecraft to Mars in about a month—the Mars Global Surveyor took eleven months to reach Mars. It is hoped that antimatter could be used as fuel for interplanetary travel or possibly interstellar travel, but it is also feared that if mankind ever gets the capabilities to do so, there could be the construction of antimatter weapons.
Because of its potential to release immense amounts of energy in contact with normal matter, there has been interest in various weapon uses, potentially enabling miniature warheads of pinhead-size to be more destructive than modern-day nuclear weapons. However, this development is still in early planning stages, though antimatter weapons are very popular in science fiction such as in Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy where the production of antimatter leads to the possibility of use as both a fuel and highly effective weapon.
Dirac himself was the first to consider the existence of antimatter on an astronomical scale. But it was only after the confirmation of his theory, with the discovery of the positron, antiproton and antineutron that real speculation began on the possible existence of an antiuniverse. In the following years, motivated by basic symmetry principles, it was believed that the universe must consist of both matter and antimatter in equal amounts. If, however, there were an isolated system of antimatter in the universe, free from interaction with ordinary matter, no earthbound observation could distinguish its true content, as photons (being their own antiparticle) are the same whether they originate from a “universe” or an “antiuniverse”.
But assuming large zones of antimatter exist, there must be some boundary where antimatter atoms from the antimatter galaxies or stars will come into contact with normal atoms. In those regions a powerful flux of gamma rays would be produced. This has never been observed despite deployment of very sensitive instruments in space to detect them.
It is now thought that symmetry was broken in the early universe during a period of baryogenesis, when matter-antimatter symmetry was violated. Standard Big Bang cosmology tells us that the universe initially contained equal amounts of matter and antimatter: however particles and antiparticles evolved slightly differently. It was found that a particular heavy unstable particle, which is its own antiparticle, decays slightly more often to positrons (e+) than to electrons (e−). How this accounts for the preponderance of matter over antimatter has not been completely explained. The Standard Model of particle physics does have a way of accommodating a difference between the evolution of matter and antimatter, but it falls short of explaining the net excess of matter in the universe by about 10 orders of magnitude.
After Dirac, science fiction writers produced myriad visions of antiworlds, antistars and antiuniverses, all made of antimatter, and it is still a common plot device; however, no positive evidence of such antiuniverses exists.
The Balloon-borne Experiment with Superconducting Spectrometer (BESS) is searching for larger antinuclei, in particular antihelium, that are very unlikely to be produced by collisions. (One of the current experiments, under assumptions of current theory, would take 15 billion years on average to encounter a single antihelium atom made that way.)
One way to denote an antiparticle is by adding a bar (or macron) over the particle's symbol. For example, the proton and antiproton are denoted as and , respectively. The same rule applies if you were to address a particle by its constituent components. A proton is made up of quarks, so an antiproton must therefore be formed from antiquarks. Another convention is to distinguish particles by their electric charge. Thus, the electron and positron are denoted simply as e− and e+.
Antimatter is currently the most valuable substance in existence, with an estimated worth of $300 billion per milligram. This is because production is difficult (only a few atoms are produced in reactions in particle accelerators) and because there is higher demand for the other uses of particle accelerators.
- CERN laboratories website
- NASA Science News
- Comparison of Fusion/Antiproton Propulsion systems
- Extraction of Antiparticles in Planetary Magnetic Fields
- Barry, P. (2007). The hunt for Antihelium, Science News vol.171, pp.296-300
- Freeview Video 'Antimatter' by the Vega Science Trust and the BBC/OU
- CERN Webcasts (Realplayer required)
- What is Antimatter? (from the Frequently Asked Questions at the Center for Antimatter-Matter Studies)
- FAQ from CERN with lots of information about antimatter aimed at the general reader, posted in response to antimatter's fictional portrayal in Angels and Demons
- What is direct CP-violation?
- Animated illustration of antihydrogen production at CERN from the Exploratorium.
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