Antimatter trapped and studied for first time


November 18, 2010

The ALPHA experiment at CERN

The ALPHA experiment at CERN

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An international collaboration of 15 research institutions have produced and trapped antimatter atoms for the first time ever. The feat was part of the ALPHA experiment, which is being conducted at Switzerland’s CERN particle physics laboratory. It could be a step towards answering one the biggest cosmological questions of all time.

Using CERN’s one-of-a-kind low-energy antiproton decelerator, scientists were able to produce antihydrogen atoms. Whereas hydrogen atoms consist of one proton orbited by one electron, the antihydrogen atoms consisted of an antiproton orbited by a positron (or “anti-electron”). Nine man-made antihydrogen atoms were first created at CERN in 1995, then additional experiments in 2002 showed that it was possible to create them in larger numbers. What’s unique about this latest achievement is the fact that the scientists were able to store the atoms long enough to study them – a whopping almost-two-tenths of a second.

Anyone who’s read Angels and Demons will know that storing antimatter is a tricky process. Due to the fact that matter and antimatter contain opposite charges, the two will annihilate (i.e: destroy one another) if they touch. To overcome this problem, at least temporarily, the scientists used a Minimum Magnetic Field Trap. This bottle-shaped device incorporates strong electric and magnetic fields to keep the antimatter atoms from coming into contact with its walls. Using this technology, a total of 38 atoms were observed.

According to the Big Bang theory, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created when the universe was formed. What puzzles scientists now is the question of where all that antimatter disappeared to.

“For reasons that no one yet understands, nature ruled out antimatter,” said Jeffrey Hangst of Aarhus University, Denmark, spokesman for the ALPHA collaboration. “It is thus very rewarding, and a bit overwhelming, to look at the ALPHA device and know that it contains stable, neutral atoms of antimatter... This inspires us to work that much harder to see if antimatter holds some secret.”

The research was just published in the journal Nature.

All images courtesy of CERN, except where noted.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I gag when I read about CERN. Egotistical scientists that are all about studying the insignificant when you compare it to the needs of the world. How many billions are spent on this scientific trinket while people die of disease and malnutrition? I\'m not against scientific research at all. But the funds should be put to where humanity has its greatest needs, not big toys that promise nothing.


It isn\'t just the opposing charges of matter and antimatter that cause annihilation. Protons and electrons have opposite charges and don\'t annihilate on contact, and neutrons and antineutrons have each no charge but will annihilate.

Every property of a particle\'s corresponding antiparticle is opposite, with the exception of mass.


Hey Australian, Admittedly this is pure science and expensive pure science at that, but it still has merit. Plus, who knows what can come of research like this.

Tom Garris

Australian, what would you have Science do? Mass-sterilize the primitive high-birthrate aid-dependent peoples of the Third World?

This Antimatter research is slow and expensive but so was the development of the steam engine. Antimatter might just lead to cheap energy, which in turn could lead to the greening of the Sahara Desert with Antimater-powered Desalinators.

Julian Siuksta

Australian, I\'d suggest you start thinking rather than piping rhetoric. Antimatter, antimatter containment and associated technologies such as fusion reactors are likely to be the source of green power and power storage that get us away from coal and allow centralised load levelling of power grids.

Current \"green\" power \"solutions\" are typically a waste of resources which increase polution, PV Solar being the quintessential example. Because current technologies aren\'t capable of supplying base load and there aren\'t any effective large scale energy storage solutions Nuclear or Coal are the only current and effective solutions. This science may change that.


@ Australian.

Science is a good way to help mankind. Did you ever saw Star Trek? They power the Enterprise by using Matter-Antimatter Anihiliation. I know that is Sci-Fi. But there are many things that we use today that was Sci-Fi a few years ago.

So imagine that one day we can harvest energy from matter-Antimatter reaction. Isn\'t that whorth to be investigated?


Exactly SiGMA. Photon Torpedo\'s are an antimatter warhead. That\'ll please Julian ;)

Lets use science to give us all SUV\'s and die out in a generation.... or lets explore the ultimate question of WHY.... well maybe it\'s little brother HOW :) Fine work chaps

Craig Jennings

@Australian. I\'d rather buy McMansions and SUVs and bail out banks to the tune of trillions rather than having limitless energy from an antimatter reactor. I love consuming. I earn money and buy a bunch of useless crap and call it an existence.

Humans were created to reason about the universe. There is no other singular purpose for humanity than to strive for understanding. All the poor and disadvantaged people of the world were made that way by greed and cruelty inflicted upon them by other selfish bastards. Perhaps if they embraced science they wouldn\'t behave like total degenerates.


You lost me at "Anyone who's read Angels and Demons...\" Everything else after that just read, blah blah blAh, blah blah, blah blAh blah (a la Charlie Brown\'s teacher). How can you use a non-scientific-based novel to describe a science experiment? Or rather, how dare you? At least you could\'ve mentioned \'One of the things Dan Brown\'s novel got right was the way antimatter could be kept from touching matter...\' etc., etc. Really disappointed.


Don\'t you people see that the collision of matter and anti-matter could cause enough of a reaction to create energy suitable for powering entire cities? If we could find a way to contain the reaction, we could possibly find the next power source for the world. And because the anti-matter can be created, we should have an unlimited supply of power for an eternity. All we need to do is increase our field of studies, to think \"outside the box\", and to chart the unknown possibilities of existence just as we try to chart our own universe.

William Wilson

I`m not that well versed in quantum physics or matter/antimatter science to know how much energy could be acquired from them, but I do know a window when I see one. This kind of research is the stuff that moves technology forward, and with it the way we live our lives aka progress And with progress comes opportunities - including better helping the unfortunate of the world. Taking a lump of money out of these kinds of research towards the unfortunate of the world is a very temporary action. Its the difference between giving a fish to a hungry person, and populating a lake with fish that will repopulate themselves, then taking that lake to the hungry people. kinda...

Miyazaki Wataru
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