Antimatter Produced Worldwide a Fraction of the Size of a Period at the End of a Sentence


Making Antimatter - Complicated, Expensive
By James Schultz


January 11, 2001

If you want to make antimatter, you'd better plan to have a particle accelerator on hand and everything that goes with it: radiation shielding, a massive power supply, steering magnets, state-of-the-art particle detectors and powerful computers, along with an army of scientists, engineers, technicians and administrators to design, organize and run experiments. Unless you are somehow able to recreate the Big Bang in your backyard, to get your antimatter factory off the ground you'll need a minimum of a half-billion dollars to get your gear up and running.

Antiparticles don't just pop out of thin air. To generate them, you have to slam something (a beam of ordinary matter particles, say) into a small gas or liquid target material. You'll need a miles- (kilometers-) long accelerator to get your proton beam up to (light) speed. You use protons since they're about 2,000 times more massive than lightweight electrons and thus produce more subatomic debris, including antiprotons. Once you have your target squared away, your beam going and all your equipment in perfect working order, it's time to sit back and wait for all those antiprotons you're anticipating.

You wait a while. Then you'll wait a while longer. Then there's some more waiting. Come to think of it, you could be waiting for a couple of weeks.

For every 1 million protons sent careening into the target, a mere 20 antiprotons are produced. At least, that's true at nuclear physics facility Fermilab, outside Chicago in Batavia, Illinois. Says Dave McGinnis, an antiproton expert and department head of Fermilab's Antiproton Source, "Most of what comes off is heat, radiation and a zoo -- a whole bunch of particles you don't want."

Once you have antiparticles you have to store them safely. Otherwise, they will annihilate in interactions with ordinary matter, including air molecules. Scientists now are perfecting cold traps, devices cooled to near absolute zero, that should store much larger numbers of antiprotons.

Not that we're talking huge amounts. So far the total amount of antimatter produced worldwide is a fraction of the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

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