Monday, June 20, 2011

CERN physicists trap antimatter for 1,000 seconds — unlimited future energy?

June 6, 2011

Geneva, Switzerland — CERN physicists have reported they created antimatter in the Large Hadron Collider and stored it in three vials. Unfortunately, one of the vials has been stolen and will explode ritualistically at the Vatican if the battery dies and the magnetic containment field fails.

Wait, that’s a scene from the Angels and Demons movie. Last I checked, Europe is still there. In the nonfiction world, an international team of scientists in the ALPHA collaboration has stored 309 atoms of antihydrogen, for almost 17 minutes — a huge leap, compared to just 38 atoms for 172 ms (about two tenths of a second) in a previous try.

So how do you trap antimatter? In an antimatter trap, doh. Think Ghostbusters (“Why worry? Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.” —  Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman).

OK, actually, the trap was developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), using a superconducting eight-pole magnet. To make antihydrogen, the accelerators that feed protons to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN divert some of these to make antiprotons by slamming them into a metal target.

Why only 1,000 seconds? Because the anti-atoms explode when they contact matter. “So far, the only way we know whether we’ve caught an anti-atom is to turn off the magnet,” says Berkeley Lab’s Joel Fajans. “When the anti-atom hits the wall of the trap it annihilates, which tells us that we got one. In the beginning we were turning off our trap as soon as possible after each attempt to make anti-atoms, so as not to miss any.”

So what about using those matter-antimatter explosions for energy? That’s 30 to 40 years away, condensed matter physicist Dr. Andrew Beckwith, Dept. of Physics, Chongqing University in China, told me, based on scuttlebutt from Berkeley Lab researchers. Good, just in time for the Singularity. So will that solve our energy problems? “No, this would be even more dangerous than nuclear energy for use on Earth,” he said, “but  it could be used for propulsion in an interplanetary or interstellar spaceship.”


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