Antimatter is beyond doubt one of the most enigmatic names heard in sci-fi and pop culture. Anti – how can something oppose matter? And why even? Apparently, the matter is living a very human life, having enemies of its own, how mundane!
To those who have read Dan Brown’s bestselling novel Angels and Demons or watched its adaptation starring the infamous Tom Hanks, antimatter needs no introduction, for it is portrayed as supposedly the explosive weapon that can destroy the Vatican and with it the topmost echelon of the Catholic Church.
What is Antimatter?
Antimatter is actually the perfect and exactly opposite counterpart to the matter as we see. It acts in essence as the nemesis of matter; and if somehow comes in contact with ordinary matter, leads to the total annihilation of both the matter and itself, in the process giving a lot of energy in the form of gamma-radiations, small subatomic particles known as neutrinos and sometimes other smaller matter-antimatter pairs.
Discovered in the first half of the twentieth century, antimatter has been subject to great scientific research and increasingly ambitious and expensive scientific experimentation. The whole mystery of antimatter surrounds the fact that although theorized as the twin brother of matter, antimatter is almost nowhere to be found in the universe today. It is one of the most elusive ideas in particle physics and one of the most lucrative ones as well.
The antimatter saga
Antimatter comes with a very long history of its own, a history practically as old as the universe itself. It acts as Romeo to matter’s Juliet, both bound to die at first contact in this case. It was theorized in 1928 by Paul Dirac and the first antimatter particle ever was discovered in 1932 by Carl Anderson, just four years later. Amusingly enough, the name antimatter was coined much earlier, in two rather speculative letters written by a certain Arthur Schuster to the British scientific journal Nature in 1898, thirty years prior to the actual formulation of antimatter theory. Even more amusing would be the fact that the term antimatter, although existed, was never actually used by Dirac himself in his theory and was only accepted and popularized along the way.
Physicists speculate antimatter’s birth in a surprisingly almost equal amount as that of matter at the time of birth of the universe. Number crunches suggest just after the birth of the universe, or at the end of the inflationary epoch as it is called, there was an extremely minute imbalance between the number of matter and antimatter particles born, and that to every ten billion and one particles of matter, ten billion particles of antimatter did come into existence.
What came afterwards is the most interesting part: most of the antimatter annihilated most of the matter created, and as matter still existed in bigger numbers even though infinitesimally, matter ultimately got to prevail. That is how we came to live under the reign of the matter so abundant in the observable universe today.
The most common antimatter naturally produced are actually subatomic particles, positrons (anti-electrons) and antineutrinos. Positrons are born during a certain occurrence known as β+ decay during natural radioactivity whereas antineutrinos are also born naturally during similar natural radioactive decays. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has also found positrons in trace amounts in thunderstorm clouds. Satellite experiments also show the positrons and a few antiprotons to be amounting to less than 1% of primary cosmic radiation.
The biggest natural sources of production of antimatter known to man are black holes and neutron stars that produce positrons in huge quantities in the form of the jest of positron-electron plasma.
Making antimatter in the lab
The same antimatter particles are produced artificially in particle accelerators or nuclear experimentation procedures. At times, people drive high energy lasers through thin gold foils and at other occasions, antimatter particles are born as a result of high energy subatomic collisions.
The first antimatter atoms ever made were in 1995 by CERN, nine antihydrogen atoms to be exact. They were still too hot for physicists to be able to study them and it was not until 2002 that the world’s first cold antihydrogen was made by the ATHENA Project. The cooling down process was still highly inefficientwith 99.9% losses.
There are a multitude of options available today yet none of them is promising enough to ensure wide-scale availability of antimatter per se.
Comes at an unbelievable cost
Antimatter is super rare, and the most expensive thing in the world. Scientists tell it was relatively abundant at the time of the birth of the universe (or this universe, just to be on the safe side) but due to its destructive relationship with matter since its birth, not much of it would exist today, even in the darkest and most remote corners of the universe.
Even to this date, the biggest artificial production of antimatter takes place at CERN whose maximal production rate is ten million antiprotons per minute. Even if the processes involved get 100% efficient, at the present rate it would take CERN 100 billion years to produce 1 gram of antihydrogen.
This whole process of manufacturing a mere 1 gram of antihydrogen would cost CERN an estimated $62.5 trillion thus rendering antihydrogen (and hence antimatter) the most expensive thing in the world and in human history.
What is it so good for?
Why it interests its researchers surely varies from researcher to researcher for it may have a lot of very important uses to human technology today. The hottest purpose of antimatter research today is the search for newer clean sources of energy. It is a long way off being affordable clean energy yet if perfected, it could help meet a highly developed future Earth’s extreme energy demands (or maybe even an interplanetary or interstellar civilization). It could even serve as a potential fuel for interstellar travel.
1 kilogram of antimatter annihilated with 1 kilogram of matter could give us the energy equivalent of almost 43 megatons of TNT.
This amount of energy is also coincidentally nearing to the 27,000-kilogram Tsar Bomba, the biggest thermonuclear weapon ever detonated by man. This is why one more use of antimatter that people have speculated is its potential to be used as a weapon owing to its extremely destructive and explosive nature. Happily, though, it can be safely said humanity is very far from achieving this capability yet.
Antimatter is the most expensive thing in the world ever discovered, and certainly, something very intriguing, owing to its extreme rarity to be found, its immense energy potentials to be exploited, and its near impossibility to be acquired. Everything about its existence makes it unparalleled in every way.
We can all imagine wearing an expensive diamond ring, but can you imagine wearing an antimatter ring one day? That may even become a wild fashion statement some day in the distant future, who knows?