Use it to travel faster than light, make the ultimate bomb or generate an enormous amount of energy. Antimatter is the key element in several science fiction scenarios. In reality scientists are mystified as to why there is so little found of this strange material in the universe. Prof. dr. Peitzmann (Physics, UU) works at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. He is trying to answer some of the probing questions surrounding antimatter. In the lectureseries 'Breaking Beta' he explained what we know, what we don't know, and how he and his colleagues study something that is missing.
A good place to start the quest is the Big Bang. In theory every particle was created alongside an anti-particle. Yet there is very little found of this so called 'antimatter' in the universe. And we should be happy about this, because when antimatter meets matter they annihilate both. If there would have been an equal amount of antimatter and matter there would be nothing. No stars, no planets, no animals and humans…
So, good for us. But where did all the antimatter go? Why is the universe we observe not symmetrical? At CERN antimatter particles are produced to study the state of the universe a few microseconds after the Big Bang. Researchers mimicking the Big Bang in the lab, “we call it the Little Bang”, says Peitzmann. Using a powerful particle accelerator, matter and antimatter particles are produced and data is generated. The scientists are looking for clues, how is an antimatter particle different from a matter particle? That might explain why the antimatter is missing. “We were excited to do this in the first place, but so far we have not yet found a satisfying explanation for the antimatter mystery.” Peitzmann and his team have to keep analyzing data and searching for answers.
Antimatter in science fiction
While scientist all over the world are racking their brains over the true nature of antimatter, writers and movie directors are eager to use the mysterious antimatter in their science fiction stories. In Star Trek it is used to propel space ships. And Dan Brown describes how the ultimate bomb in his book 'Angels and Demons' is made of antimatter. Are these scenarios in any way possible or realistic? Peitzmann took the time to discuss this: “Antimatter is very hard to produce. It can never be a solution for our general energy problem. You always need more energy to produce the anti-matter than you gain from it”. Energy stored in antimatter is much higher than in anything else, 100 times higher than fusion fuel. This means it can function as an explosive. About 1 mg of antimatter corresponds to 50 tons of TNT. Peitzmann puts this amount in perspective: “the total world production of antimatter isn't close to 1 mg, we have produced not even 0.0001 mg so far.”
Even if we were able to produce antimatter in higher quantities, we would not be able to store it. We would need huge machines and installations to store a very small part. The world record is the storage of a single antiproton for 57 days. To store 1 mg of antimatter we would need a sphere of 24m in diameter. Add to this that trapping antimatter is also very inefficient, “we would lose 99 percent, so that is very dangerous.” Peitzmann helps us to conclude that the 'fiction' in science fiction prevails once again. Antimatter will probably continue to puzzle and inspire, both scientists and people in the entertainment industry, for many years to come.
To be continued…