How scientists create the most explosive substance in the universe
CERN is the only place on Earth that manufactures antimatter particles via high-energy collisions.
Just a tiny amount of antimatter is capable of generating an explosion equivalent to a nuclear bomb.
Luckily, there's not nearly enough money or time to produce enough antimatter for that kind of bomb.
CERN is the largest particle physics laboratory on Earth. Its antimatter factory looks unassuming from the outside and isn't a place where you might think to look for the most explosive material in the universe.
Antimatter is made up of elementary particles identical to regular matter, except with the opposite electrical charge. When the two come into contact, they annihilate, transforming into energy. Just one gram of antimatter could create an explosion equivalent to a nuclear bomb.
Sources: LiveScience, Symmetry
In theory, the Big Bang created matter and antimatter in equal amounts, which should have caused both types of matter to annihilate each other completely. But we live in a universe made almost entirely of regular matter.
Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory
At CERN's antimatter factory, physicists create antiprotons and antihydrogen to study their properties and help answer fundamental questions about the universe's origins and why we even exist in the first place.
To create antimatter particles, physicists start with this Proton Synchrotron Booster, shown here, which delivers an accelerated beam of about 10 trillion regular protons to the Proton Synchrotron.
The Proton Synchrotron further accelerates the beam along its 628-meter circular path, shown here, and smashes it into a block of mostly the chemical element iridium. The proton beam interacts with the iridium, producing about four antiprotons per every millionth collision. But these antimatter particles still have a long way to go from here.
The energetic, chaotic-moving antiprotons are then fed into the Antiproton Decelerator, which uses powerful magnets, shown here in blue, to slow the antiprotons down and direct them around the ring of the Antiproton Decelerator.
The antiprotons then enter quadrupole magnets, like the red one shown here, which compresses them together, against their natural urge to repel each other.
The Extra Low Energy Antiproton Ring, shown here, reduces the speed of antiprotons — to about 1.5% of the speed of light — which helps physicists trap the antimatter particles.
One of the final stages of antimatter production involves a vacuum, otherwise any antimatter would be annihilated when it contacts regular matter. This section of the vacuum chamber heats to around 250°C (482°F) to remove gas and water vapor, leaving a near-perfect vacuum in the middle of the chamber.
Source: Physicist and antimatter expert at CERN, Sameed Muhammed
A pressure gauge monitors the vacuum conditions to avoid a matter-antimatter encounter. But even if there were such an encounter, these experiments produce such tiny amounts it would take 10 trillion years to make just .25 grams of antimatter, the amount needed for a theoretical "antimatter bomb."
Source: Sameed Muhammed
Penning traps, like the one shown here, are cooled to nearly absolute zero temperatures and use an extreme vacuum and an electromagnetic field to trap antiprotons and antielectrons — the building blocks of antihydrogen.
Penning traps contain ultra-thin foils, about 1.5 micrometers thick, that further slow down and capture antiprotons sent from the ELENA ring. Before ELENA was installed in 2018 to help slow down antiprotons even more, CERN caught less than 1% of antiprotons it produced. Now, it captures up to 70%.
Sources: CERN, Sameed Muhammed
After ELENA slows them down, antiprotons make their way to different experiments in the antimatter factory. The AEgIS experiment, for example, uses the antihydrogen production trap, shown here, with strong magnets on each side that capture antimatter. Physicists then observe gravity's effect on it.
Another experiment, called ASACUSA, is testing the theory that antiprotons have the same mass as regular protons, according to the CPT (charge, parity, and time reversal symmetry) theorem.
Sources: CERN, University of Oxford
In the ALPHA experimental zone, superconducting magnets filled with liquid helium help trap antiparticles. In 2011, the Alpha experiment at CERN successfully stored 309 antihydrogen atoms, with some atoms remaining trapped for nearly 17 minutes, "which is forever" one physicist described at the time.
Sources: CERN, UC Berkeley
Still, antimatter is extremely expensive and inefficient to produce. Making one gram of antimatter would cost an estimated $62.5 trillion dollars. That's why CERN makes such a limited amount — fewer than 10 nanograms in total since it began antimatter production in 1995.
Sameed Muhammed, a physicist working on antimatter production at CERN, helped with photo sourcing and information in this story.
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