Science News

Antimatter in the microwave

Thu, 8th Mar 2012

Chris Smith

Part of the show The 5-a-Day Yellow Glow!

Scientists have taken the first steps towards interrogating Antimatter detectorantimatter to find out more about this mysterious material.

Antimatter is the stuff that science fiction films are made of. But it's also a reality, can be made in the laboratory and is even used in medical imaging during procedures like PET scanning. It's also an enigma. The rules of physics say that there should be at least as much antimatter in the Universe as there is matter, the material that we are made from. Scientists can't find it though, suggesting either that we've got something wrong, or something else very exciting and important must be happening.

But the problem isn't trivial to study, because when antimatter and "normal" matter meet, they destroy one another. Now scientists have made a big step forward by developing a way to perform the world's first measurements on antimatter, using microwaves.

Writing in Nature and working at CERN in Switzerland, Simon Fraser University scientist Mike Hayden and his colleagues first made a cloud of about 6000 anti-hydrogen atom by mixing positrons (anti-electrons) with anti-protons at a temperature just above absolute zero.

Using a magnetic field they were able to trap the antihydrogen atoms for long enough to then zap them with bursts of microwaves. The microwaves interacted with the anti-atoms, making them leap out of the trap, revealing as they did so information about themselves.

This means that scientists can now begin to apply this technique to probing the behaviour and characteristics of antimatter and, more specifically, find out how to go looking for it elsewhere in the Universe...

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