Sunday, 4 March 2012

What is Anti-Matter?

To start with, antimatter really isn't that different from ordinary matter, it is composed of particles (anti-particles, but still particles nonetheless) just like normal matter is. In fact the only real difference between matter and antimatter is that (generally) they have the opposite (but exact same magnitude) charge to their matter counterparts.

Antimatter is, however, a relatively new concept for science. In fact the first real, serious suggestion that antimatter could even exist was in 1928, by the English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. He started out with pretty modest intentions, he wanted to discover how an electron spins, something that was not known at the time. And he managed it, the original equation he came up with was a slightly messy looking one, but still rather neat for a problem that had alluded physicists for so long.

But Dirac wasn't satisfied there, he felt that the equation could be simplified further and he felt that notation was the key, he worked and eventually, he managed to create an equation to explain the spin of an electron with just a few terms.

He then decided that this was ready for full publication, but when he did he encountered a few problems. The solutions to the equation implied that if it was how the electron behaves it must have a particle that is identical to it, exact for it having opposite charge. It wasn't generally accepted that this could be true, but Dirac believed that the equation was constructed so elegantly and beautifully that it must be true, and in fact this particle was discovered to exist in 1932 by Carl Anderson, this was the positron.

The main useful property on anti-matter is that when it collides with matter, it annihilates. This means that all of the mass of the two particles is converted into energy, and it is a lot of energy. Using Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2, we can work out how much energy is produced when annihilating an electron and positron. They each have a mass of 9.11 × 10-31 kilograms and c is the speed of light, 299,792,458 metres per second. So the energy produced in the annihilation of an electron and positron is, E = 2 × 9.11 × 10-31 kg × 299,792,4582 m/s = 1.64 × 10-13 joules.

Now this may seem incredibly low, but this is for one pair of tiny particles. If we had a collection of electrons and positrons the mass of a grain of sand (about 2.3× 10-5 kilograms) this energy level jumps to 4.13 × 1012 joules. This is about 50 times more than the average energy a car uses in a year. From matter no greater than the size of a grain of sand.

The energy released is in the form of gamma radiation which although it can be harmful it has very useful properties too. It is only through annihilation that PET scans (positron emission tomography) are possible. Electrons is fired at where a scan is needed to be taken from, and with the aid of a radioactive isotope it collides with a positron and produces a gamma ray. The gamma radiation is picked up via detectors and the data that is received can be reconstructed to show a detailed 'slice' of the area.

Because of the massive amounts of energy that are produced from a relatively small mass it would seem reasonable to try and harness this energy to power, well, everything. But here lies the problem. It is very difficult to produce large amounts of antimatter artificially. CERN when fully operational can produce 10 million anti-matter particles a minute, but even at this rate it would take over 100 billion years to produce just 1 gram of anti-hydrogen.

As you might imagine it is also very difficult to store anti-matter, because when it interacts with matter it annihilates into energy. In fact anti-matter has only been stored for 16 minutes at most in the whole of history, this is yet another stumbling block as to why anti-matter is very hard to utilise.

Because of both of these factors it is estimated (by NASA in 1999) that one gram of anti-hydrogen would cost $62,500,000,000,000 (that is 62.5 trillion dollars!). Because of this massive sum of money for such small amounts of anti-matter, research into it is a big thing in modern physics.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! Another case of me being too clever for my own good… it should be 3a + 5b = 8 to make that equation work. I’ll update the article. math