York researcher among group boosting ‘shelf life’ of antimatter

A York University professor is among an international group of scientists to successfully trap antimatter atoms for more than 16 minutes – 5,000 times longer than previous efforts – according to a study published yesterday in the journal Nature Physics.

“We’re a long way off from being able to actually bottle antimatter, like in the movie Angels and Scott Menary Demons, but it was important to show that we could trap it for a longer period of time,” said Scott Menary (right), professor in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. Menary works on the Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus experiment, dubbed ALPHA, at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). In November 2010, ALPHA scientists successfully trapped antihydrogen atoms for the first time – but only for a fraction of a second.

“The first time, we trapped [the antihydrogen atoms] for a tenth of a second, which is actually long enough to study them,” Menary said. “But naturally we had people asking, ‘why can you only hold on to them for a tenth of second?’ This experiment demonstrates that we can hold on to them for much longer – in theory, for as long as we want,” he said.

ALPHA physicists, including a core team of scientists from Canadian universities, have been working to trap and study antihydrogen – the antimatter twin of hydrogen – which may help explain the “lost half of the universe.” During the Big Bang, matter and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts; scientists are left with the question, where did all the antimatter go? Researchers are tackling that riddle by taking one of the best-known systems in physics, the hydrogen atom, and investigating whether its antimatter counterpart behaves in exactly the same manner.

Makoto Fujiwara, the study’s lead author, said: “We know we have confined antihydrogen atoms for at least 1,000 seconds. That’s almost as long as one period in hockey! This is potentially a game changer in antimatter research.” Fujiwara is a research scientist at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, and an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary.

Scientists at CERN were able to make antihydrogen almost a decade ago, but they couldn’t study it; antimatter annihilates when it comes into contact with matter, converting to energy and other particles. ALPHA scientists succeeded by constructing a sophisticated “magnetic bottle” using a state-of-the-art superconducting magnet to suspend the antiatoms away from the walls of the device and keep them isolated long enough to study them.

Canadian researchers are playing leading roles in the antihydrogen detection and data analysis aspects of the project. The collaboration includes scientists from University of Calgary, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and TRIUMF.

The TRIUMF cyclotron at the University of British Columbia. Photo courtesy of TRIUMF
Above: The TRIUMF cyclotron at the University of British Columbia. Photo courtesy of TRIUMF

The next step for ALPHA is to start performing measurements on trapped antihydrogen; this is due to get underway later this year. The first step is to illuminate the trapped antiatoms with microwaves, to determine if they absorb precisely the same frequencies (or energies) as their matter twins.

ALPHA-Canada and its research is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), TRIUMF, Alberta Ingenuity Fund (AIF), the Killam Trust and Le Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies (FQRNT).