Is the production of antimatter viable?

Twenty years ago: antimatter ante portas

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Manfred Orlick

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of January 1996, a scientific report from the European Laboratory for Particle Physics CERN in Geneva caused a worldwide sensation. A working group there, led by the German physicist Walter Oelert from the German Research Center in Jülich, had already succeeded in producing antimatter, or more precisely antihydrogen, for the first time in September of the previous year - albeit in the modest yield of nine atoms, on which no experiments could of course be undertaken .

The hydrogen atom consists of a proton in the nucleus and an electron in the shell. The physicists had now been able to produce an anti-hydrogen atom from an antiproton and a positron under suitable conditions. Such systems only exist for 40 billionths of a second. Antimatter is not viable in the presence of "normal" matter; when the two meet, complete annihilation occurs. The anti-hydrogen annihilated immediately upon contact with other matter. Completely isolated, however, he would "live" indefinitely.

The sensational experiment was repeated and confirmed in the same year at the research center for particle physics Fermilab near Chicago. As early as 1928, the British nuclear physicist Paul Dirac postulated with his hole theory (a special relativistic extension of quantum mechanics) a form of antimatter whose atomic components consist of antiparticles and thus provided the theoretical basis for its later experimental proof.

Normally, new scientific findings end up in the single-column headings in the features section of the daily newspapers, unless a person is walking on the moon or there is another hot trace of the legendary Amber Room. It was different in 1996 - on January 15, the mirrorTitle page in bold letters "Anti-Matter - Science's First Foray into the Counterworld". When Walter Oelert was asked about this screaming report, he put it succinctly: “What we have created is the first element in the periodic table of the anti-elements. We have shown that antiatoms really do exist. "

The science fiction fantasy, yes the greed for sensation or the fear of a mysterious mirror world were awakened. The mirror reported that the Dalai Lama and the Pope had previously inquired about the state of antimatter research during their visits to the CERN research center. "Matter and antimatter, heaven and hell, Christian and antichrist, that was what the former chief shepherd Wojtyła had rumored - whether there was perhaps a connection?"

The American thriller writer Dan Brown dealt with this age-old conflict between church and science in his novel »Angels & Demons« (German translation by Axel Merz »Illuminati«), which deals with the murder of a CERN researcher and the theft of one Container with highly dangerous antimatter goes. A small drop of it is more dangerous than an atomic bomb. With this, the secret society »Illuminati« wants to destroy the hated church with one ultimate blow.

Science, however, is less interested in such exciting thrills in the form of novels, rather it is concerned with the question "Are there any" anti-worlds "in our universe, galaxies perhaps, which are made of antimatter? So far you haven't found anything. This can be ruled out for our solar system and its »closer surroundings«, because its presence would lead to huge explosions. Our moon missiles and Mars probes would each have dissolved in bright flashes of light. Even if distant galaxies consisted of different "types of material", we would have to be able to measure the gamma radiation produced during their annihilation with our sensitive space laboratories.

This previously negative result raises the question: where has the antimatter gone? According to the big bang theory, particles and antiparticles should have been created in almost the same amount, which would then have destroyed each other, i.e. converted into radiation. Physicists see a possible cause for today's lack of antimatter in a slight excess of "normal matter" over antimatter in the early stages of the universe. But why this excess to which we ultimately owe our existence? Researchers have been able to demonstrate experimentally that "nature prefers matter to antimatter for a previously unknown reason."

But why this preference? Are there perhaps the smallest differences in the properties of atoms and antiatoms? Scientists have been trying to unravel these secrets for twenty years. The most important step is to extend the "lifespan" of the artificially generated antimatter. In 2011, a CERN team led by the American physicist Joel Fajans succeeded in producing 309 anti-hydrogen atoms and keeping them alive for 17 minutes in a huge magnetic field. A long enough time to try them out for the first time.

Despite all the scientific advances in recent years, antimatter will probably remain something for science fiction fans for a while, for example the spaceship "Enterprise", which is powered by antimatter and destroys enemy spaceships with "photon torpedoes". But the military have long since recognized that a single gram of antimatter contains the explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT. With today's technical possibilities, however, CERN would have to produce antimatter for billions of years in order to obtain a usable amount. Although production and storage are still unsolvable problems, antimatter has long ceased to be »physics for weirdos« - antimatter ante portas.

Published in Ossietzky 2/2016