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November 17, 2010 – Original source: Gizmodo

Get ready for that warp drive spaceship, because we are now one step closer to it. After creating antihydrogen in their antiproton decelerator, scientists at CERN have been able to trap antimatter for the first time in history.

This a big step. First, it gets humanity closer to understanding one of the biggest mysteries of the Universe: What happened to all the antimatter that was created during the Big Bang? In theory, matter and antimatter were created in equal parts during the Big Bang. However, the latter disappeared shortly thereafter. Or at least, we can’t seem to find it. The spokesman for CERN’s ALPHA experiment—Jeffrey Hangst of Aarhus University, Denmark—says that trapping these atoms was a bit of an overwhelming experience:

What’s new about Alpha is that now we’ve managed to hold on to those atoms. We have a magnetic bowl, kind of a bottle, that holds the antihydrogen […] For reasons that no one yet understands, nature ruled out antimatter. It is thus very rewarding, and a bit overwhelming, to look at the ALPHA device and know that it contains stable, neutral atoms of antimatter.

CERN created the first nine atoms of antihydrogen in 1995, and then started to produce atoms in large quantities in 2002, as part of the ATHENA and ATRAP experiments. This is the first time that scientists have been able to trap antihydrogen atoms for a long enough time to study them, keeping them at 9 degrees kelvin (-443.47 degrees Fahrenheit, -264.15 degrees Celsius), suspended in a magnetic field inside this Ghostbusters-style machine.

The other reason why this is an important step is its potential to solve our need for unlimited energy. When antihydrogen touches matter—as shown in the image above—it releases a huge amount of energy. Many scientists speculate that antimatter may be the key to provide unlimited power capable of driving machines that are unthinkable right now. Eventually, it could be the stuff that could power new engines capable of taking us to the stars at near-light speed.

The energy per unit mass (9×1016 J/kg) is about 10 orders of magnitude greater than chemical energy, about 4 orders of magnitude greater than nuclear energy that can be liberated today using nuclear fission, and about 2 orders of magnitude greater than the best possible from fusion.

The reaction of 1 kilogram of antimatter with 1 kilogram of matter would produce 180 petajoules of energy or the rough equivalent of 43 megatons of TNT. For comparison, Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, reacted an estimated yield of 50 megatons, which required the use of hundreds of kilograms of fissile material. Wikipedia

Or maybe we will just manage to destroy the world in one big honkin explosion of strawberry and cherry goo. It can go either way.

But fear not, we are not there yet. At this stage, scientists are still trying to comprehend how antimatter works. This is one more—although very important—step in this quest. [CERN]


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