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Physics professor Mike Hayden is one of an international team of scientists that has discovered how to capture and store antihydrogen atoms, the antimatter counterpart of hydrogen.

Fire up the antimatter generator, Scotty

December 2, 2010

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Harnessing antimatter has long been the stuff of Star Trek and other science fiction stories—until now.

Simon Fraser University physicist Mike Hayden and his PhD student Mohammad Dehghani Askezari are part of an international team of scientists that has managed to produce, capture, and hold onto antihydrogen atoms long enough to study their characteristics.

They are among 15 scientists from several Canadian universities and Vancouver’s TRIUMF national research lab on the 42-person “Project ALPHA” team that made the discovery in Geneva, which was described in the November issue of the journal Nature.

“Even though scientists have now been producing antihydrogen atoms for about 15 years, no one has ever managed to hang on to them,” explains Hayden.

“Within a tiny fraction of a second, the newly produced antimatter atoms collide with some ordinary matter and disappear in a flash. We’ve managed to create a complicated magnetic bottle in which the antimatter can be stored, without ever touching the walls.”

Antimatter – or more precisely the lack of antimatter in the universe – has puzzled physicists for decades. Scientists believe equal amounts of matter and antimatter ought to have been produced after the Big Bang, but for some unknown reason all the antimatter essentially disappeared.

“Now that we can hold antimatter atoms in a bottle, it becomes possible to perform careful measurements of their properties,” says Hayden.

“We plan to look for minute differences between matter and antimatter atoms. Even a small difference might give us a clue as to where the antimatter went.
“This experiment will address some truly fundamental questions about the universe.”

To view the Nature article, visit at.sfu.ca/NJlUFW; to view an animation of the ALPHA experiment in English or French (or silent) visit at.sfu.ca/QxILfP.

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