Frequently asked Questions about Antimatter

1) Is antimatter a new source of energy?

- it is true that the annihilation of 1 kg of antimatter with matter would generate an enormous amount of energy (9 · 1016 J, corresponding to a 1 GW power plant running for 3 years);

but:

- there is no natural ‘mine’ (on Earth or even in the Universe) where antimatter can be dug out
- antiparticles have to be made by using accelerators for concentrating (kinetic) energy in particle beams and then colliding them with a block of matter (E = mc2)
- making antiprotons costs about 10  billion times more energy than is finally stored in their mass
- to make a kilogram of antimatter would therefore take all the energy produced on Earth for 10 million years.

2) Can antimatter be used for energy storage?

- Yes. For storing small amounts of energy in an extremely compact way, antimatter is very useful. The energy density stored in antimatter is about 1 billion times higher than in batteries.

- But: the amount of antimatter that is produced each year in big accelerator labs such as CERN or Fermilab corresponds to an energy that would allow a 100 W light bulb shine for 15 minutes.

3) Can antimatter be used for medical applications?

- Positron Emission Tomography has been in use for more than a decade.
- Antiproton irradiation might be useful  for cancer therapy, and will be studied at CERN.

4) Are there everday applications of antimatter?

- Not for our daily life at home in the foreseeable future, may be for medical applications (see question 3).
- Producing antiprotons requires high energy accelerators which exist only in a few places. Keeping antiprotons away from ordinary matter requires electromagnetic particle traps inside ultra-high vacuum vessels at very low temperatures.

5) Why is the production of cold antihydrogen important?

- Our method has proven to be useful for producing large quantities of slow moving anti-atoms.

- This technology is the first step on the road to high precision comparisons of hydrogen and antihydrogen. This is presently a purely scientific objective, with the goal of understanding our Universe and its preference for matter over antimatter.

6) Antimatter as rocket fuel?

- There are indeed researchers in the U.S. working with NASA on futuristic concepts for antimatter induced fission engines. Antimatter would not be the main source of energy, but would be used instead to split heavy nuclei (antiprotons would be the ‘matchstick’). However, even for this applications about 1 milli-gram of antiprotons would be needed, about 100,000 times more than the present annual production on Earth. In addition, many serious technical problems (capture, storage, transport) would have to be overcome.

7) Extra-terrestrials made from antimatter?

- According to the Big Bang theory, equal amounts of matter and antimatter have been produced in the first instants after the Big Bang. It is still not clear why the Universe has developed a preference for our kind of matter, and why all the antimatter has apparently disappeared.

- The most commonly agreed model predicts that all antimatter disappeared in the first microseconds after the Big Bang. However, it is not completely excluded by observation that some parts of our Universe are made entirely of antimatter, with anti-suns, anti-planets, etc. On these anti-planets, it is quite conceivable that (intelligent) life has evolved like on Earth.  However, these anti-E.T.s would of course define their kind of matter as ‘ordinary’ and would consider us as being made of antimatter.


8) How many people work on antimatter production at CERN?

- Officially, the operation of the AD takes 12 FTE (full-time equivalents).
- In the three experiments studying antimatter, there are about 100 physicists.


9) How much does the antimatter research at CERN cost?

- The operation cost of the AD is about 1 million CHF per year (not including the salaries).
- Overall cost including salaries about 2.5 MCHF per year. (CERN budget only, not including physicists from outside CERN)


10) Does antimatter fall up - i.e. does antimatter involve anti-gravity?

- We do not know, since no experiment has been feasible to test it experimentally. We hope that our method will one day lead to such a measurement.

Theory says that antimatter and matter should fall equally in gravitational fields. However, there are several aspects of gravity which are not understood, in particular in connection with cosmological effects (dark matter, cosmological constant) and quantum effects. The final answer will therefore come from experiment (as usual).

11)  Can we destroy waste (also radioactive waste) with antimatter?

A: In principle: yes, but it would be very expensive (and dangerous) to destroy kilograms of it (see question 1)

12) Can you build antimatter bombs?

A: No. The destructive power of a 10 MT hydrogen bomb (of which several thousand exist) corresponds to about 250 g of antimatter. It would take 2.5 million years of the entire energy production of the Earth to produce this amount.

13) Can positrons annihilate with protons?

Only (fundamental) particles and their corresponding (fundamental) antiparticle can annihilate ? they must be ‘mirror’ images. Therefore, positrons can only annihilate with electrons, and antiprotons with protons.

However, protons and neutrons are not fundamental, but composed of 3 other particles, called quarks. When e.g. an antiproton hits a neutron, the anti-quarks from the antiparticle can annihilate with the corresponding quarks contained in the neutron.

LVJ - Last  modified September  19, 2002