That’s the longest time that anyone has managed to hold on to antimatter atoms – they are famously difficult to corral because antimatter annihilates whenever it encounters matter.
Geneva-based CERN made the usual proclamation that accompanies antimatter breakthroughs: we are now one step closer to solving the mega mysteries of nature and the universe. The Big Bang should have created an equal amount of matter and antimatter. But antimatter is scarce; so scientists hope to learn what happened to it and how it works. That in turn could shake up our fundamental understanding of ordinary matter.
“Half of the universe has gone missing, so some kind of rethink is apparently on the agenda,” said CERN’s Jeffrey Hangst in announcing the 16-minute achievement.
There’s no denying the profound possibilities of CERN’s advance, so I will leave that discussion to others.
Instead, I’ll take this opportunity to explore another side of antimatter: its practical or, even, everyday, side.
One thing for sure about antimatter is that it explodes when it meets matter. Harness that, and the possible uses are limitless.
Take hospital PET scans for example, which are probably the most common application of antimatter. The “P” in PET stands for positron, which is a subatomic, antimatter particle. The medical profession uses Positron Emission Tomography to inject positrons into a brain and watch for gamma rays that flash when the positrons encounter electrons of normal matter. The two destroy each other, giving off a light pattern that is different in an afflicted brain than in a normal one, thus revealing neurological aberrations.
Likewise, researchers around the world are trying to put positrons to work exposing weaknesses and abnormalities in all sorts of materials and things, ranging from metals and semiconductors to aspirin, ice cream and potato chips.
When I last spoke with experts on this subject – admittedly several years ago - I was intrigued by the possibilities.Physicist Paul Coleman at the University of Bath in England told me then that positrons naturally find the atom-sized holes in the crystal lattices that make up a metal. Gamma ray detectors, like in a PET scan, could note where the positrons settle, thus revealing weaknesses. As Coleman said, “a crack will always start in atomic scale, which turns into a bigger crack which leads to your airplane wing falling off.’’
That is an extreme example. But the point is that by discovering atomic level vulnerabilities, researchers can develop stronger materials for building electronic chips, planes, trains, automobiles, skyscrapers, bridges, roads and so on.
Coleman is no a one-off crackpot. Plenty of other physicists and engineers are looking into this.