Lightning in a Bottle: Antimatter Trapped for Nearly 17 Minutes

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Okay, so antimatter’s nothing like lightning, really, but bottling it in a kind of containment field? Doesn’t sound like the safest gig. More like something you’d catch Geordi La Forge trying during some wild hair zero-sum Star Trek plotline involving aliens, the Holodeck, rerouting power from life support, and a self-destruct sequence.

Thankfully nothing self-destructed when CERN researchers first created, then forced antihydrogen atoms to hang around for an unprecedented 16 minutes, 40 seconds. That’s roughly 16 minutes and 40 seconds longer than the first attempt roughly a year ago, which only managed to snag antihydrogen for a trifling 172 milliseconds (about two-tenths of a second). The new results were published in Nature, impassively titled “Confinement of antihydrogen for 1,000 seconds.”

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Antimatter, as you’ve probably heard, goes kaboom when confronted with matter. Take hydrogen. A standard hydrogen atom comes with a single proton and an electron. An antihydrogen atom, by contrast, contains a single antiproton and a positron—a subatomic particle with the same mass as an electron and a numerically equal but opposite (positive) charge. Put the matter and antimatter atoms together and they annihilate each other in bursts of energy. Keeping the catalytic antimatter atoms around long enough to study can thus be a serious trick.

How’d they pull it off for over 16 minutes? Physicists working on the ALPHA experiment at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland “loaded” the trap by producing “anti-atoms” (sounds so Ed Wood, no?). Those anti-atoms were created in a process that involved “merging cold plasmas.” Okay, so antimatter is kind of like lightning—another type of plasma—or at least has a relationship to it, in terms of how it’s produced.

The scientists initially created a bunch of antiprotons, cooled them using “cold electron plasma,” merged that with specially prepared positrons, and presto—antihydrogen atoms! Since antihydrogen atoms are impervious to electricity, the scientists used superconducting magnets to corral them long enough to conduct measurements. (More on Time.com: 50 Space-Race Highs and Lows)

Why fiddle with antimatter? Simple. Take a look around wherever you’re at (unless your name’s Blastaar, Annihilus, or Stygorr and you live in the Negative Zone). Yep, matter, and plenty of it. Why not antimatter? Inquiring minds want to know why the universe went one way and not the other. Studying antimatter by way of experiments like these should offer insights, if not an outright answer.

(via Scientific American)

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