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Antimatter

It seems that all the particles that make up the universe have 'mirror image' counterparts that are identical to normal particles except that every one of their properties is exactly reversed. So if an electron has a charge of -1 an anti electron (or positron) has a charge of +1. A proton has a charge of +1 so an anti proton has a charge of -1. In fact it's not just the charge but all the other properties are reversed as well. The only thing that doesn't differ is their mass. It's hard to have negative mass! There is even some pretty good evidence that antiparticles exist in time frames that run backwards. Try and get your mind around that one!

Hydrogen Anti Hydrogen

Why isn't there loads of anti matter around?

Electron Positron

The problem is that when anti matter and normal matter come into contact they annihilate each other. All their mass turns straight back into energy and puff - it's gone. Anti matter doesn't tend to hang around for long which is why it can be quite hard to detect.

If we could get reliable supply of antimatter it would be a very good source of energy. The energy released from the annihilation of just 1 gram of antimatter would produce enough energy to power Cardiff for about a day. Not a bad return. You could fly a fully laden jumbo jet to Australia and back on a speck of antimatter about the size of a pin head. Strewth!

747 Pin Head

How is is produced? It is produced naturally in nature. High energy cosmic rays colliding with air atoms often produce antimatter. This is where it was first detected way back in the 1930's.

Can we make anti matter?

Yes.

How? The principle is really easy. Just take two particles of ordinary matter, give at least one of them stacks of kinetic energy and whack it into another. If the energy density is high enough some of that energy condenses back into matter. In fact two kinds of matter, real and anti. This is what happens in the big ring at CERN in Geneva. It is the best anti matter factory on Earth and produces nearly 0.0000000001g of it every year. Ok, so it would take a while to collect a bucket of the stuff…

The real problem with antimatter is trapping it and persuading it to hang around long enough to do experiments with. It's quite hard to deal with. The first problem is that you cannot place into any container where it might touch any normal matter. So it needs to be contained in a magnetic bottle and a perfect vacuum. This bit is fairly easy. The trick is doing this with stuff that tends to be travelling at speeds close to that of light. So what you really need to do is grab it, slow it down and stuff it into your magnetic bottle. All in about 10-28 of a second just using magnetic fields. Easy? No. But...

Antimatter made at Cern

This is exactly what a team at CERN has just succeeded in doing. It's a pretty neat trick. For the first time ever particles of anti matter have joined together to form anti atoms, in this case anti Hydrogen, and stuck around long enough for people to take a good look at them. If the theory is right anti hydrogen, made from an anti proton and a positron should behave exactly like ordinary hydrogen. If it doesn't then the theory is wrong and things start to get really interesting.

A fifth of a second is forever!

The anti hydrogen that has been captured can last up 0.2 second. This is an eternity in particle physics terms, where most measurements can be made within a millionth of a second.

One of the biggest problems in physics is something called the 'asymmetry' of the universe. Whenever any matter is actually made (from energy) there are always equal numbers of real particles and anti particles produced. This observation has never been seen to fail. If the universe makes a proton it also makes an anti proton. If it makes a neutron it also makes an anti neutron.

Why is this a problem? Because matter was made from energy in just the same way during the big bang, but there must have been more real matter made than anti matter, or the universe we see around us would not exist. It would have been simply annihilated with the anti matter and we are back to 'puff and it's gone', scenario. It would be nice to know how the universe pulled this trick. By taking a really good look at some anti matter we may just be able to work it out.

Big Bang

Big Ideas

What is anti-matter?

Does anti matter occur naturally?

How can we make and store antimatter?

Why is understanding anti matter important?