The Key to Antimatter Propulsion: Dedicated Facilities

by Paul Gilster on October 26, 2004

Antihydrogen, now produced for the first time in Switzerland at the CERN facility, may be the ultimate fuel, producing a thousand times more energy than fission or fusion methods. But what will it take to produce enough antihydrogen for practical use? After all, we now produce antimatter in the amount of mere nanograms per year.

And ponder this: CERN estimates that, to create a kilogram of antimatter with present methods would take all the energy produced on the Earth for ten million years. Considered in more everyday terms, the amount of antimatter produced each year in an accelerator laboratory like CERN or Fermilab is about enough to make a 100-watt bulb shine for fifteen minutes.

What we need is a dedicated antiproton source, an idea often discussed by interstellar guru Robert Forward, and now advanced in a new paper to be published in the Prceedings of the 2004 NASA/JPL Workshop on Physics for Planetary Exploration. First noted in SpaceRef, the title is “Controlled Antihydrogen Propulsion for NASA’s Future in Very Deep Space.” The authors are Michael Martin Nieto, Michael H. Holzscheiter and Slava G. Turyshev. Among their conclusions:

  • It would take about 5 years and ~ 0.5 B$ to build a source.
  • It would take about the same time and money more to develop antihydrogen handling technologies.
  • During all this time effort would be given to developing the new antiproton production technology that is needed. Current antiproton production rates are low. While clever techniques can enhance these rates by several order of magnitude and quantities sufficient for advanced concepts can be produced given enough economic and political pressure onto the few available sources, a real breakthrough can only come through continued interest and research in this area. A good analogy is the comparison between a light bulb and a laser. In both cases light is produced, but in one system through thermal heating of a material and in the other through coherent processes. Antiprotons are currently produced by heating a metal target with a primary proton beam. This is a direct analogy to the light bulb — we are still awaiting the invention of a ‘laser-equivalent’ for the production of particles of antimatter.

  • A GUESS is that 10-20 years more would be needed for this.
  • The article on the ArXiv server is available in PDF form here.