Scientists come up with antimatter container

By Terri Theodore, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - Antimatter fuelled the Starship Enterprise to go where no man had gone before, but in reality it remained strictly in the realm of science fiction.

Until now.

In an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists explain how that fiction may have taken a step closer to fact with the creation of a type of magnetic bottle that can hold antimatter long enough for scientists to try to unlock the mystery of the antiatom.

About 15 Canadian experts from Simon Fraser University, the University of B.C., the University of Calgary, York University and the TRIUMF national research lab in Vancouver were part of the 42-person team to make the discovery in Geneva.

The exciting device has the usually sedate scientific world in a froth.

"This is really cool," said Marcello Pavan, a physicist with TRIUMF. "We're talking about trapping antiatoms for goodness sakes, this is, you know, `Star Trek.'"

Scientists have been creating antimatter for 15 years, but it moves at about the speed of light and is quickly destroyed. Pavan said the magnetic bottle is able to capture antimatter for about one-tenth of a second before it self-destructs.

"This is science fiction become science fact," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Antimatter is one of the mysteries of science.

Matter is essentially anything that has mass and occupies space — basically everything on Earth.

It's believed matter and antimatter are identical, except that they have an opposite charge and antimatter destroys itself almost immediately.

Now that they can see antimatter, scientists might be able to answer some of the questions about any differences between the two.

Pavan said the amazing device may give some insight into what happened after the Big Bang created the universe.

Physicists have always theorized that when the universe came into being an equal amount of matter and antimatter was created, but all the antimatter disappeared.

"This is like the 900-pound elephant sitting on your couch, you can't ignore it, the fact that we don't know what on earth happened to all this antimatter, which should have been created at the Big Bang," Pavan said.

The project, called the ALPHA Collaboration, was based at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland. CERN is probably best known for its large Hadron Collider, a giant white donut-like structure that is the world's largest and highest energy particle accelerator.

The antiatoms are produced in a vacuum at CERN and the life of the antiatom was extended in the bottle, which is the size of about two of the tubes from inside a roll of paper towels.

In Geneva, Simon Fraser University physics professor Michael Hayden was just heading out Wednesday to celebrate the release of the group's findings.

Hayden said the goal of the creation is to answer a very fundamental question: What happened to all the antimatter?

"It's a very fundamental question. If we look at the universe around us we see that — as far as we can tell — it's composed of matter. Antimatter just isn't there," he said.

Because the hydrogen atom is so well known to scientists, Hayden said they're now comparing that with antihydrogen, something they know nothing about.

"We don't know where this is going to lead. But the ultimate motivation is really to try to address this question: why do we live in a universe composed of matter?"

ALPHA Collaboration capture atoms of antimatter

(Vancouver, BC) – Boldly going where the universe has not gone before, scientists at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland have succeeded in capturing anti-matter atoms. In a paper published today in Nature, physicists of the ALPHA Collaboration, including key Canadian contributors, describe how they succeeded in containing for the first time atoms of antihydrogen, the antimatter partner of ordinary hydrogen. This breakthrough will allow future detailed measurements of antihydrogen, giving scientists a powerful new tool to help solve the age-old question: “Why is there something, rather than nothing, in the universe?”

Antimatter, or the lack of it, remains one of the biggest mysteries of science. At the Big Bang, matter and antimatter should have been produced in equal amounts, but since they annihilate upon contact, shortly thereafter nothing should have remained but pure energy (light). However, to date all observations suggest that all the antimatter has vanished. To try to understand what happened to “the lost half of the universe”, scientists are eager to determine whether there is a difference in the properties of matter versus antimatter that might offer an explanation. The approach taken by the ALPHA collaboration will be to compare a well-known system in physics, the hydrogen atom, consisting of one proton and one electron, with its antimatter counterpart, antihydrogen, consisting of an antiproton and an antielectron.

Antihydrogen atoms were first made at CERN eight years ago, but couldn’t be stored, since the anti-atoms touched the ordinary-matter walls of the experiments within millionths of a second after forming and were instantly annihilated. The ALPHA collaboration succeeded by developing a sophisticated “magnetic bottle” using a state-of-the-art superconducting magnet to suspend the antiatoms away from the walls. The experiment showed definitive proof of antihydrogen atom capture for about a tenth of a second. Very few were captured (nowhere near enough to power a starship engine!), but their longevity was more than enough to allow study. This result is the crucial step before commencing detailed studies of antihydrogen. These antihydrogen atoms very well may be the first contained antiatoms in the history of the universe.

A well-known aphorism proclaims that to understand the hydrogen atom is to understand all physics. Makoto Fujiwara, spokesperson for the ALPHA-Canada group, points out, “That is only half right - we still have to understand antihydrogen.” CERN Director General Rolf Heuer said, “These are significant steps in antimatter research and an important part of the very broad research programme at CERN.” CERN is the only laboratory in the world with a dedicated low-energy antiproton facility to enable this type of research.

ALPHA-Canada scientists have been playing leading roles in the antihydrogen detection and data analysis aspects of the experiment, and also the development towards forthcoming antiatomic structure studies. Richard Hydomako, a Ph.D. student of Prof. Rob Thompson at the University of Calgary and a scholar visiting Prof. Scott Menary at York University, played a crucial role in the data analysis of the reported result. He said “It’s been a rare privilege and learning experience taking part in this groundbreaking international endeavor.” Important infrastructure support came from TRIUMF in Vancouver, BC, which enabled Canadian scientists to participate in an international project at the level beyond what is normally possible by a single university group. TRIUMF Director Nigel Lockyer was enthusiastic, “This is an historic achievement and a real testament to the imagination, ingenuity, and inspiration of the scientists and students from TRIUMF, Canada, and around the world.”

The ALPHA Collaboration is already exploiting the fruits of their labour. Fujiwara notes that “As we speak, we are trying to measure, for the first time, what colour antimatter atoms shine,” referring to initial attempts to apply microwave spectroscopy on the trapped antihydrogen, an effort led by Prof. Michael Hayden of Simon Fraser University, and Prof. Walter Hardy of the University of British Columbia. This effort is the next step in determining the detailed atomic structure of antihydrogen, which could give new clues on why there is so much something, rather than a lot of nothing, in the universe.

Financial support for ALPHA-Canada and its members comes from NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council), NRC and TRIUMF, AIF (Alberta Ingenuity Fund), the Killam Trust, and FQRNT (Le Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies).


For More Information

ALPHA Collaboration website:             http://alpha.web.cern.ch/alpha

CERN antimatter information:    http://angelsanddemons.cern.ch/

New Record of DRAGON-ian Sensitivity

19 October 2010

TRIUMF's flagship nuclear-astrophysics facility known as DRAGON has set a new record for ultimate sensitivity—distinguishing between haystacks with needles in them and those without. This success clears the way for a detailed physics experiment that will study part of the process by which the Sun produces neutrinos.

A test run of TRIUMF experiment S1227 was completed successfully on 23 September 2010. The aim of the experiment is to measure the rate of the 3He + 4He -> 7Be + gamma radiative-capture reaction as a function of energy. In simple terms, this reaction combines two isotopes of helium into an isotope of beryllium with the emission of a photon or gamma ray. This reaction is important both because it relates to the production of solar neutrinos through the decay of 7Be and because it is the means by which 7Li was created in big bang nucleosynthesis in the first few minutes of the universe.

The experiment is mounted at the DRAGON recoil separator, where a beam of 4He isotopes bombards a 3He gas target. The 7Be fusion products are separated from the incident beam and detected at the focal plane of DRAGON using a position- and energy-sensitive silicon detector. The reaction is very improbable at the energies of astrophysical interest, so the recoil separator must simultaneously collect the fusion products with minimal losses and very efficiently stop the primary beam from reaching the focal plane where it would overwhelm the detectors or complicate the identification of the fusion products.

In this preliminary measurement DRAGON set a new world record for beam suppression. Although approximately 10^17 helium ions bombarded the gas target, not a single beam ion was observed at the focal plane. This implies a beam suppression capability of at least 10^17, which is at least a factor of 100,000 larger than has been demonstrated at any other recoil separator.

This experiment is especially challenging due to the current shortage of 3He, an isotope with a very small natural abundance that represents only 0.0001% of natural helium. The burgeoning interest in 3He for use in radiation detection systems with homeland security applications has rendered the isotope difficult to obtain for scientific purposes. We have now successfully operated a 3He recycling system capable of conserving our precious sample of 3He for continuing measurements at DRAGON.


-- By Barry Davids, TRIUMF Research Scientist

Spring and summer 2008 promises to be a busy time at DRAGON

Spring and summer 2008 promises to be a busy time at DRAGON. We have begun modifications to the detector station at the end of the separator, in anticipation of proton capture experiments with beams of radioactive Mg-23 in June and stable S-33 in August. The upgrade consists of: a modification to the mounting of the foil-mirror-MCP detector and addition of a second foil-mirror-MCP to measure local time-of-flight of the recoil heavy ions with an anticipated resolution of several hundred picoseonds rearrangement of the end station slits and Faraday cup. (The Faraday cup and MCP no longer will occupy the same space in their In positions!) simplified, more compact mounting box for a si strip detector better arrangement of vacuum components, with added pumping.