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A Practical Use for Antimatter

If we need a huge particle accelerator to produce antimatter and use it only for exotic experiments, how are we ever going to ramp up production to the point where it becomes practical as a propulsion system? One answer may be that as we study the minute amounts of antimatter available for study today, we are learning how to use it in ways that are far more likely to catch the public eye, as in medicine. And treating cancer effectively — ask any patient — is anything but theoretical.

At CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the Antiproton Cell Experiment (ACE) has been running since 2003. It’s an attempt to look at antimatter’s effect on cancer cells, and its results are startling. Antiprotons, it turns out, are four times more effective than protons at destroying live cancer cells. Here’s CERN’s Michael Holzscheiter on the encouraging news:

“To achieve the same level of damage to cells at the target area one needs four times fewer antiprotons than protons. This significantly reduces the damage to the cells along the entrance channel of the beam for antiprotons compared to protons. Due to the antiproton’s unsurpassed ability to preserve healthy tissue while causing damage to a specific area, this type of beam could be highly valuable in treating cases of recurring cancer, where this property is vital.”

Antimatter annihilates when it meets normal matter. And in this case, an antiproton annihilating with part of the nucleus of an atom in a tumor cell produces desirable results that multiply. The released energy is effective at destroying nearby tumor cells as well, a ripple effect not available with more conventional particle beam therapy based solely on protons. We’re still talking about clinical applications that are a decade or so out, but giving antimatter a ‘real-world’ connection boosts society’s interest in its study and may result in higher funding levels for future work.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gregory Benford March 17, 2007, 23:37

    This is wonderful–a practical reason to develop exotic technology.
    Many of us may well be needing this someday.

  • Eric James March 18, 2007, 23:49

    Ah baloney. It’s nothing more than propaganda. Antimatter is likely to be too expensive to produce and store for it to ever be used in such a mundane fashion.

  • ethan medrano May 18, 2009, 12:23

    dont think about how much it costs now, but in the future at the rate our technology is going, all we have to do is make a more efficient means of producing and storing it and that will be done eventually. so yes it will be too expensive probably in my life time but for the next generation this technology may be readily available.

  • Jimbo July 7, 2010, 17:56

    Wow.. Isn’t this cool? Watching the Europeans create antimatter that will likely be the biggest breakthrough of the 21st century? Really makes you proud to be an American… Or not… Hey you know if we’re really lucky, maybe the Chinese will lend us the money to have an antimatter procedure done to treat our cancer when we’re old and grey… Of course, if not, there’s always a pain pill. :)

    This is really promising technology. I just miss the good ol’ days when we strove to be the innovators of it, instead of just its benefactors. Once we dared to boldy go where no man has gone before. Now we just want to make Muslims feel good. Here’s to hope and change… :)

  • Intelligent Man of Science December 13, 2010, 11:07

    I admit, the thought of useing Antimatter is indeed intriguing and exciting, but without proper containment (which would be incredibly difficult to create) the risks are too great. As stated above, when Antimatter comes into contact with normal matter, they cancel each other out. It also stated in the above article that it releases energy. What they didn’t state is that the possible amount of energy able to be released is IMMENSE! A recorded energy spike, when simulated to match the needed ammount to perform a certain task, was logged at 16x more powerful than fusion (the stuff that keeps stars going)!

    Another thing to take into account is even if we were somehow able to contain the energy, it would still be nearly impossible to make in your lifetime. CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) has come to the conclusion that it would take 100 quadrillion dollers and the LHC running for almost 100 years straight to produce one gram. So, unfortunately, unless we hit a major technological break through (and i mean something that will make the 21st century’s developments look like the stone age) I don’t think we’ll be doing anything with it in our lives. Sorry guys.

  • Paul Gilster December 13, 2010, 14:33

    Actually, antimatter is more powerful than 16x fusion. The potential energy release is around 1000 times that of fission and around 100 times that of fusion, making it powerful indeed. Both containment and antimatter production are huge problems that are nowhere near being resolved, although some propulsion concepts that use tiny amounts of antimatter to ignite a fission reaction, like Steve Howe’s ‘lightsail’ concept, might be within reach in coming decades.

    However, this article is about using antimatter for medical purposes, and we should note that it’s already being used for such, in positron emission tomography (PET) as the major example. The technique produces a three-dimensional image of a body, detecting pairs of gamma rays emitted indirectly by a positron-emitting radionuclide that is injected internally. The PET scanner was TIME Magazine’s medical invention of the year in 2000.

    The amount of antimatter involved is so tiny that the chance of creating a disastrous explosion is nil. Here’s part of a description of the process from the Wikipedia:

    “As the radioisotope undergoes positron emission decay (also known as positive beta decay), it emits a positron, an antiparticle of the electron with opposite charge. The emitted positron travels in tissue for a short distance (typically less than 1 mm, but dependent on the isotope[9]), during which time it loses kinetic energy, until it decelerates to a point where it can interact with an electron.[10] The encounter annihilates both electron and positron, producing a pair of annihilation (gamma) photons moving in approximately opposite directions. These are detected when they reach a scintillator in the scanning device, creating a burst of light which is detected by photomultiplier tubes or silicon avalanche photodiodes (Si APD).”

    My guess is that antimatter has quite an interesting future in medical technology.