Antimatter: Fact or Fiction?

Antimatter is fascinating. How can it not be? It is like an optical illusion come to life- the reflection in the mirror that you can touch through the glass. It exists, yet it doesn’t. Famously used for nefarious purposes in Dan Brown’s brilliant novel Angels and Demons, the mysterious antimatter still remains a question mark in many minds. Although the novel explains the process of its formation and existence in some detail, as it is with all of Dan Brown’s novels, it is very difficult for the reader to separate fact from fiction. Many are left with a lingering curiosity regarding the properties of antimatter.

To break it down, antimatter is, very simply, the opposite of matter. It is a fact of nature that everything exists in opposites and as Paul Dirac predicted in 1930, the rule applies for electrons as well. Carl Anderson discovered the particle that moved in the opposite direction from the electron and named it the ‘positron’. Around the 1950s, physicists began using high speed particle accelerators to produce the positrons by producing collision of some protons with others. The term ‘antimatter’ however, was first coined by Arthur Schuster in 1898 in a letter where he also speculated the possibility of matter and antimatter cancelling each other out and resulting in annihilation.

Although his theories were discounted at the time, it brings us to the earliest known formation of antimatter- the Big Bang. Even though very little is known about the Moment of Creation, scientists speculate that in the first seconds of the Big Bang there was no matter and only energy. As the universe cooled, both matter and antimatter were formed and for some unfathomable reason, matter took precedence over its opposing force and the galaxies as we know them now were formed. Theories say that even these galaxies are only a billionth of the matter that was actually formed after the Big Bang and that the rest was wiped out by the antimatter reacting with the matter and causing it to form gamma ray particles.

As Angels and Demons has rightly said, antimatter has unlimited possibilities as an energy source if scientists are actually able to harness it. According to NASA, a solar flare in July 2002 created about a pound (half a kilo) of antimatter, the amount that could power the United States for 2 days. But this is where reality takes a toll. Even at CERN (European Nuclear Research Centre and the place from where the antimatter bomb was stolen in the novel), antimatter has only been produced only in sub-microscopic quantities. The physicists at the facility claim to have created only around 10 billionths of a gram of antimatter in 30 years of research. Far from being a potential bomb, the only thing that the annihilation of matter and antimatter can do at the moment is light a single electric bulb for a few minutes.

However, steps are being taken to harness antimatter’s full potential despite its unstable nature and resultant difficulty in storage. From the production rate of between 1 and 10 nanograms per year, this production is likely to rise to between 3 and 30 nanograms by the year 2015 or 2020 due to the completion of the Large Hydro Hadron Collider at CERN and improving facilities at Fermilab. But there is a catch. It is estimated that, in order for CERN to produce 1 gram of antimatter, they would have to spend 100 quadrillion dollars as CERN spent around $20 million dollars to produce several picograms of antiprotons. Hence there is still a long way to go for Dan Brown’s prediction to come true.

Regardless of the costs, it is important for the world to start looking at antimatter as an energy source of the future. It is already being used in the field of medicine to perform Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans of the brain. A single breakthrough in perhaps the storage or production technology could speed up the process to the usage of antimatter as an energy source, which could relieve the burden of the natural resources of the world. And maybe one day, antimatter could also be used to power spaceships for NASA or ISRO!

Perna Vohra

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