Antimatter, the stuff that powers science-fiction ships could in the future power anything, from your grandchild’s smart house to his child’s career in a space academy. Even though, in terms of large scale energy sources, the world is concentrated on getting fusion power working, antimatter is the next logical step to be taken in the 22nd century.
Incipient scientific concepts regarding a different kind of matter have been proposed from late 19th century by people like William Hicks and Karl Pearson, the first proposing a type of matter with negative gravity. Negative gravity was also on the mind of Arthur Schuster in 1898 when he coined the term “antimatter”. Three decades later, in 1928, Paul Dirac realised the possibility of anti-electrons which will be observed and renamed as positrons by Carl D. Anderson in 1932.
The way in which antimatter can be used in producing energy can be described as follows. Antiparticles have the same mass as particles of “normal” matter but have opposite charges. When particles from both types of matter come close to each other they go through a process called “annihilation”, releasing high energy protons in the form of gamma rays and neutrinos. The power released is immense but one of the problems in harnessing it is that all that power is being released at the same time.
In 1955, Ernst Lawrence at the Bevatron succeeded in creating and detecting an antiproton and after five years in another experiment he detects an antineutron. Another five years passed and in 1965 in an experiment held at the CERN and also at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, scientists create the first anti-deuterium, a nucleus made from an antiproton and an antineutron. We must now give a definition of the antineutron because while protons and electrons have a positive and respectively a negative charge, their “antagonists” have the opposite. A neutron has no net electric charge and thus an antineutron also has no net electric charge, the difference is in their baryon number given by their quarks. An antineutron has antiquarks and quarks need a whole different article to be explained.
It was only in 1995 that another breakthrough was made in the field with the creation at CERN of 9 antiatoms of antihydrogen. As part of an ALPHA experiment held in 2011 at CERN, scientists succeeded in trapping 300 antiatoms for over 16 minutes. This important development paves the way for even longer trapping periods, necessary for making antimatter a viable energy source.
The financial aspect is almost as breathtaking as the physics involved. Creation of a gram of antimatter is expected to cost around 45 trillion euros, to keep things in perspective the cost of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are believed to be around 3.5 trillion euros (just an estimate) while all criminal activities in 2009 alone generated around 2.5 trillion US dollars (1.5 trillion euros) according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Going back to things that matter, scientists working at CERN and in all similar centers across the world are true heroes and should be treated as such because they show humanity her true face, seeking, exploring, trying to understand in all the ways possible.
The downside would be that such great power could very likely be used first in the military. To frame this picture I found an old article dating back from 10th November 1963 in an obscure newspaper called Victoria Advocate. There, it is written that the Soviet military leadership was looking to build bombs in excess of 160 megatons with the writer proposing antimatter as a way to do that. In reality the most powerful weapon ever tested by the Soviets (and the largest in the world) was the Tsar Bomba and it had around 57 megatons.
While a 45 trillion euros gram of instant death is far-fetched even for the military the threat of accidents happening is very real. This is a debate our grandchildren would probably have. One of the greatest unsolved mysteries in physics is the asymmetry of matter and antimatter in the visible universe.
Well up above the tropostrata
There is a region stark and stellar
Where, on a streak of anti-matter
Lived Dr. Edward Anti-Teller.
Remote from Fusion’s origin,
He lived unguessed and unawares
With all his antikith and kin,
And kept macassars on his chairs.
One morning, idling by the sea,
He spied a tin of monstrous girth
That bore three letters: A. E. C.
Out stepped a visitor from Earth.
Then, shouting gladly o’er the sands,
Met two who in their alien ways
Were like as lentils. Their right hands
Clasped, and the rest was gamma rays.
– Harold Furth, “Perils of Modern Living” – Furth had been an american architect and scientist interested in thermonuclear fusion, he died in 2002. This poem is the only one he published. The New Yorker, 10 November 1956.