Have you read Dan Brown's Angels & Demons book or watched the movie, in which symbologist Robert Langdon tries to stop a legendary secret society Illuminati from destroying Vatican City with the newly discovered power of antimatter stored in a canister?
According to the book, antimatter is an extremely dangerous substance with immense destructive potential, which is unleashed upon contact with any form of normal matter, and is comparable to a small nuclear weapon.
In the story, scientists have solved one of the most complicated scientific problems: the capture and storage of antimatter. In the real life, capturing atomic antimatter has not yet been achieved.
But the race to be the first to solve this mystery has gone on full tilt at the world's largest particle physics lab, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), located in the northwest suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland. Now, physicists at CERN have created antimatter.
For almost five years now, two rival research teams, ATRAP and ALPHA, have been competing with each other trying to get enough antimatter atoms to survive for a particular time-span to get a spectroscopic energy measurement. The teams have been conducting experiments in closed quarters at CERN, which is the only laboratory in the world with the proper equipment to carry out this research.
A big part of the motivation to capture and store antimatter is to give scientists more of a fundamental understanding of nature, said Rob Thompson, head of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary and co-investigator in the ALPHA Collaboration.
For decades, researchers have been puzzled over why antimatter seems to have disappeared from the universe. The scientists managed to create an atom of anti-hydrogen and then hold onto it for long enough to be studied in the lab. Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element.
American scientist Jeffrey Hangst and his colleagues, from Britain, Brazil, Canada, Israel and the United States, trapped 38 anti-hydrogen atoms for more than 170 milliseconds, according to a paper submitted to the science journal Nature. Following their first success, the team managed to hold the anti-atoms for longer time-spans.
This is a major discovery. It could enable experiments that result in dramatic changes to the current view of fundamental physics or in confirmation of what we already know now, said Rob Thompson.
We've been able to trap about 38 atoms, which is an incredibly small amount, nothing like what we would need to power Star Trek's starship Enterprise or even to heat a cup of coffee, said Thompson, one of 42 co-authors of the paper submitted to Nature along with the University of Calgary's Makoto Fujiwara and graduate students Richard Hydomako and Tim Friesen.
Trapping antimatter is tricky. When matter and antimatter get too close, they destroy each other, in a kind of explosion, leaving behind the energy which made them. The challenge is cooling the atoms off enough, 272 degrees below zero, so that they are slow enough to be trapped in a magnetic storage device.
An antihydrogen atom is made from a negatively charged antiproton and a positively charged positron, the antimatter counterpart of the electron.
The objective, both for ALPHA and ATRAP, is to compare the energy levels in antihydrogen with those of hydrogen, to confirm that antimatter particles experience the same electromagnetic forces as matter particles, a key premise of the standard model.
The ALPHA claim is the first major advance since the creation of thousands of antihydrogen atoms in 2002 by an earlier experiment called ATHENA2 and by ATRAP3.
Both experiments combined decelerated antiprotons with positrons at CERN to produce antihydrogen atoms. But, within several milliseconds, the atoms annihilated with the ordinary matter in the walls of their containers. To prevent that from happening, the ALPHA team formed antihydrogen atoms in a magnetic trap.
Although not electrically charged like antiprotons and positrons, antihydrogen has more subtle magnetic character that arises from the spins of its constituent particles.
The ALPHA researchers used an octupole magnet, produced by the current flowing in eight wires, to create a magnetic field that was strongest near the walls of the trap, falling to a minimum at the centre, causing the atoms to collect there. To trap just 38 atoms, the group had to run the experiment 335 times.
In particle physics, antimatter is an extension of the concept of the antiparticle to matter. Antimatter is composed of antiparticles in the same way that normal matter is composed of particles.
The term antimatter was coined by Arthur Schuster in 1898. In his two letters to Nature, Schuster hypothesized antiatoms, whole antimatter solar systems and discussed the possibility of matter and antimatter annihilating each other. The modern theory of antimatter began in 1928, with a paper by physicist Paul Dirac.
Scientists claim antimatter is the costliest material to make. In 2006, Dr. Gerald A. Smith, founder of Positronics Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, estimated $250 million could produce 10 milligrams of positrons (equivalent to $25 billion per gram). In 1999, NASA estimated that producing one gram of antimatter would cost $62.5 trillion.
The production of antimatter is a costly as only a few antiprotons are produced in reactions in particle accelerators, besides the higher demand for the other uses of particle accelerators.
According to CERN, it has cost a few hundred million Swiss Francs to produce about 1 billionth of a gram (the amount used so far for particle/antiparticle collisions).
NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts-funded studies are exploring whether it might be possible to use magnetic scoops to collect the antimatter that occurs naturally in the Van Allen belt around the Earth. The other possible place to collect them would be from the belts of gas giants like Jupiter.