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Nudging Antimatter Toward Practicality

Antimatter would seem to be an ideal propulsion candidate for starships. After all, the annihilation of matter and antimatter is mind-bogglingly efficient, releasing energies that fission or fusion engines could not hope to achieve. A single gram of antimatter meeting a gram of ordinary matter would release the energy of a 20-kiloton bomb. And talk about mass ratios — Robert Forward calculated that a one-ton Centauri probe moving at a tenth of lightspeed would require no more than four tons of liquid hydrogen and forty pounds of antimatter.

In fact, antimatter sounds great until you realize that current production runs in the range of nanograms per year. And even if we could magically boost antimatter production, containment remains a problem. A Penning trap, which uses electrical and magnetic fields to hold the charged particles in suspension from normal matter, is heavy, hard to manage and houses only a small amount of antimatter, although Penn State’s Mark I offered a significant improvement. NASA’s work on HiPAT (High Performance Antiproton Trap) aims at improving the situation still more through the use of strong magnetic fields and extreme cooling.

HiPAT is part of the incremental work that needs doing as we build the capacity to create more antimatter and store it efficiently. But there are other storage approaches, as exemplified by the work of Japanese researcher Masaki Hori. Currently working at the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics, Hori wants to change the paradigm by using radio frequency waves rather than magnetic fields to store anti-protons. He calls his device a ‘superconducting radiofrequency quadrupole trap.’ and thinks it can offer antimatter storage in a device the size of an office wastebasket. His next move is to go to work on what’s in it.

For part of improving our understanding of antimatter is figuring out whether it truly is the exact opposite of normal matter. Hori puts it this way:

“Scientists believe that nature, at a very fundamental level, possesses a symmetry called ‘CPT’ (Charge, Parity, and Time-reversal): this means, if we were to imagine an ‘antiworld’, where all the matter in the universe were replaced with antimatter, the left and right directions inverted as if in a mirror, and the flow of time reversed, it would be completely indistinguishable from our real matter world. Since this symmetry is of such crucial importance in our understanding of the world, it is of the first importance to test it at the highest possible precision.”

Hori’s earlier work on the anti-proton involved measuring its mass and charge to a precision of several parts per billion. The result: The anti-proton does indeed show identical mass compared to the proton, and an exactly equal but opposite charge. He now intends to use his experimental storage techniques to create complete atoms made up of antimatter, working with them to pursue and extend his studies of symmetry. That work has been given a powerful boost by the European Science Foundation and the European Heads of Research Councils, which have bestowed a EURYI Award on the researcher.

The idea behind the award is to boost Europe’s younger scientists, but Hori, 34, will take from it something more than a lift in morale. The EURYI offers awards in Nobel Prize range, between €1,000,000 and €1,250,000. That financial infusion should help the researcher pursue antimatter manipulation techniques that may help us find new ways to store the stuff. Even so, the researcher downplays antimatter’s uses in space.

But I’m not so sure. We build our skills in increments, and it is already emerging that interesting propulsion concepts using antimatter don’t have to wait for Forward’s forty pound antimatter packages. Steve Howe (Hbar Technologies) has worked out the basics of a so-called ‘antimatter sail’ with help from Phase I and II awards from NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts. Anti-hydrogen in milligram quantities released from the spacecraft itself would power up nuclear fission on a sail coated with a layer of uranium-235. Howe talks about velocities of well over 100 kilometers per second (see An Antimatter-Driven Sail to the Kuiper Belt for more on this concept, and here’s a link to the NIAC Phase I study).

We’re a long, long way from even milligram levels of antimatter production at this point, but learning what might be done with smaller amounts while extending propulsion technology is a valuable theoretical step. Get something moving at 100 kilometers a second and the outer planets are opened up to a wide variety of missions; Howe believes the method could deliver a 10-kilogram payload well into the Kuiper Belt at 250 AU with a flight time of ten years. Such exotic syntheses of different propulsion concepts stimulate our thinking. We build technologies one step at a time, and although still beyond our practical reach, antimatter propulsion may not always be in the realm of science fiction.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • enzo August 9, 2007, 7:16

    Some time ago, I found this article online :

    in there antimatter is used to induce fission/fusion. I had a cursory look,
    but it seems that energy gains of ~1,000,000 : 1 compared to simple
    annihilation are possible.
    It also says, on pg 10, that “it has been shown that fission fragments
    produced by antiproton induced fission are not radioactive”!!

    Currently producing antiprotons is very inefficient, but, according to
    this other paper :
    Is should be possible to have a production efficiency of around 0.00001

    This number, combined with the one above seems to indicate that it
    should be possible to use antiprotons to make fusion possible with a net
    energy gain of ~100:1.

    If the fission fragments are not radioactive and if a type of fusion
    that does not produce neutron is used, there is a real chance of a
    really clean reaction.

    There’s also another thing : antiproton production efficiency implies that
    the antiprotons are produced and stored for future use. the efficiency could
    be higher if they were used immediately to induce fission/fusion.
    For example, and I have no idea if this is practical, but maybe a lot of
    the high energy antiprotons normally produced and lost could be used
    to induce fission/fusion on the spot, thus increasing efficiency.

    Does anyone know if all this could be remotely practical ?
    This is regardless of any space application.


  • hiro August 9, 2007, 16:05

    In order to produce more antimatter, we need some PeV colliders which cost at least several hundred billion dollars and I don’t think the government will do it in the next hundred years.

  • Robert Bishop August 10, 2007, 1:25

    Hori wrote:

    “In order to produce more antimatter, we need some PeV colliders which cost at least several hundred billion dollars and I don’t think the government will do it in the next hundred years.”

    As I understand, it is possible to produce anti-protons (positrons are much easier) using low-cost equipment from Russia. The idea of EM containment has been around for many years and seems to offer one of the best solutions for containment. At present antimatter containment requires bulky electromagnets, complex control systems and high current power supplies. If Dr. Masaki Hori is correct the possibility of portable containment is somewhat closer to reality. Possibly someone out there is working on a combination of the Casimir force (or anti-Casimir force) and EM for antimatter containment.

  • Stephen August 10, 2007, 13:37

    Forty pounds is about 18 kilograms. Everything else was metric…

  • Ron S August 10, 2007, 21:38

    Producing, transporting and storing 18 kg of antimatter, and then slowly extracting it for propulsion sounds very risky. It would make a real mess if something very, very small goes wrong, like a tiny imbalance in the electromagnets. One glitch and there’s a really big mess.

    In the long run it may be easier and safer to produce the antimatter on site as needed. No containment required, just direct the particle stream from the production chamber. If something goes wrong there should be a little bang, not a great big one, small enough perhaps for in-flight repair.

  • tensy August 11, 2007, 1:54

    I wonder if any practical level of safety could be achieved by widely separating the antimatter storage/drive unit from the probe or habitat. If, for instance, you put the drive 1000km in front of the payload, would an instantaneous annihilation of 18kg of antimatter still produce enough energy to fry a heavily shielded capsule?

  • Administrator August 11, 2007, 9:19

    I don’t know the answer to that one, tensy, but Howe’s study of antimatter storage is germane to this discussion, particularly as it applies to larger amounts of the stuff. The study is “Enabling Exploration of Deep Space: High Density Storage of Antimatter,” available under ‘Funded Studies’ at the NIAC site:


  • george scaglione August 11, 2007, 10:13

    well everybody say what you will but we sure are going to need more anti matter!!!!! no kidding. i am sure a way will be found . thank you one and all your friend george

  • Darnell Clayton August 11, 2007, 14:25

    That is really great to hear!

    Although I wouldn’t expect anti-matter to be seriously used as a fuel source until we are about ready to exit our solar system, the fact that it seems doable is very encouraging, as that would mean we could ultimately visit other star systems.

  • ljk September 14, 2007, 14:12

    Matter-antimatter molecule makes its debut

    Discovery could lead to “annihilation gamma-ray laser”


  • James M. Essig January 10, 2008, 4:39

    Hi Folks;

    I just read an article in Science News Magazine (an early January 2008 issue)about how early stars within 600 million years of the Big Bang may have been powered by cold dark matter annihilations wherein the end result of the CDM reactions was the production of hydrogen and helium. These cold dark matter stars may have been 10 times the diameter of the solar system.

    I do not know of the details of the CDM types that supposedly powered such stars but the CDM according to the article is of the particle types that are most likely to be of the actual types of CDM particles that make up at least some of the CDM which cosmologists think icomposes 85% of the matter in our universe.

    It is interesting that the end products of the CDM would ultimately be hydrogen and helium which are useful elements in their own way for fueling interstellar travel missions.

    My thinking is that if CDM of the types of the weakly interacting massive particles or of some of the varieties of supersymmetry particles predicted to exist in supersymmetry models of particles and fields as predicted to be at least part of the CDM in the universe could be utilized in some sort of annihilation reaction to produce photons while resulting in the end product of hydrogen and helium as a result of the transformations and decays of the non-photon producing reaction sequences to the CDM annihilation reactions, we perhaps might have an energy source that resembles the exothermic quantitative characteristics of matter/antimatter annihilations energy output.

    If one where to produce such CDM or collect it from natural sources still existing, naturally there would need to be a mechanism by whiich it could be safely stored. Perhaps some sort of supersymmetric bosonic force field like mechanism could be used to contain the CDM such as fields with bosonic quanta of the sleptons, sneutrinos, or squarks.

    Now as a review, it is stated that their might be more than one form of cold dark matter or the cold dark matter may exist in one principle form of matter of the type predicted to exist within the theory of supersymmetry. Just as a review to the reader who may not be familiar to the basic concepts of this theory, supersymmetry theories of particles and fields propose that for each type of normal mattery boson, there exist a odd integer multiple of fundamental spin unit fermion and for each normal matter fermion, there exist a corresponding bosonic or even integer multiple fundamental unit of spin particle. For the normal mattergy photon, gluons, weak force bosons, and the graviton, the corresponding supersymmetric fermions are the photino, gluinos, fermionic weak force counterparts, and the gravatino. For the the normal matter fermionic leptons and quarks, the bosonic supersymmetric mattery counterparts are the three types of selectrons, the three types of snuetrinos, and the six types of squarks. Note that just as matter antimatter counterparts pairs exist for the normal matter particles such as the electrons and antielectrons, and the quarks and the antiquarks, as well as the nuetrinos and the antineutrinos, simmilar counterparts also theoretically exist for the supersymmetric fermions as well such as the Fermi Dirac pairs of the photino and the antiphotino, the gluinos and the antigluinos, the supersymmetric weak force boson fermionic matter counterparts as well as their antimatter counterparts, the gravatino and the antigravatino. Also note that even the normal mattegy Higgs Bosons should have supersymmetric counterparts called Higgsinos and that there should thus be particles called antihiggsinos.

    Now since our universe appears to act as an existential unity in terms of its laws of physics, forces, etc., just as it has been proposed that electrogravatic fields might entail the production of gravity fields or antigravity fields from the minipulation of electromagnetic fields utilizing some sort of unification of the force of electromagnetism and gravitation, perhaps the fields associated with sleptons, snuetrinos, and squarks could be manifested by the minipulation of electromagnetic fields, strong and/or weak nuclear force fields, gravity fields, and/or the Higgs fields. Perhaps the minipulation and exotic arrangment of leptons, neutrinos (which technically are leptons), and quarks could result in the direct production of the supersymmetric bosonic fields or perhaps judicious arrangments and/or minipulations of leptons and/or quarks could be used to enhance electromagnetic fields, electric fields, magnetic fields, strong and/or weak nuclear force fields, gravatic fields, and/or the Higgs fields in such a manner that some or all of these fields could be used to manefest the supersymmetric bosonic fields necessary to contain the CDM particles via some sort of unification of forces of electromagnetism, the strong and/or weak nuclear force, gravitation, and/or the Higgs fields with their supersymmetric bosonic counterparts.

    Perhaps some sort of solid material vessels made out of supersymmetric fermionic matter could be used to contain additional quantities of supersymmetric matter in much the same manner that: ordinary fuel tanks contain rocket fuels for modern chemical rockets, fusion fuels tanks could contain nuclear fusion fuel for fusion rockets, matter/antimatter composite material fuel storage tanks could contain positronium, and antimatter storage tanks could allow for the safe and stable storage of anti-hydrogen ice or liquid anti-hydrogen, perhaps even stable compressed antihydrogenic counterparts to the proposed dense forms of stable solid metalic hydrogen.

    Now, many theorist expect to see evidence if not proof of the existence of some of the supersymmetric fermionic and/or bosonic mattergy types; a process that would lend credence to the theory that at least part of the CDM in our universe takes the form of supersymmetric mattergy. It will be interesting to see the experimental results of such research. I am looking foward to the upgrade of Fermilab and the hopeful will be renewed efforts by the fundamental science funding agencies to develope even more powerful particle accellerators to probe the fundamental structures of particles and/or fields within our universe; a process which can only help our endeavor to reach for the stars.

    That’s all for now.


    Your Friend Jim

  • Administrator January 10, 2008, 14:30

    Jim, you’ll also want to see our story on the ‘dark star’ theory (assuming you’re talking about Paolo Gondolo’s work), which ran in early December:


  • James M. Essig January 10, 2008, 23:50

    Hi Paul;

    Thanks for the above reference regarding the dark star theory. I read the link and it was fascinating. By the way, I do not know if I mentioned it, attempts to detect darkstars via IR imaging telescopes will soon be made with telescopes that can see back to the first half billion years after the Big Bang if not earlier. With all of the new evermore more powerful optical telescopes in the works be they IR, visible, or UV telescopes, I think observational astronomers are going to have a field day.


    Your Friend Jim

  • ljk June 3, 2008, 16:36

    Formation Of A Cold Antihydrogen Beam in AEGIS For Gravity Measurements

    Authors: G. Testera, A.S. Belov, G. Bonomi, I. Boscolo, N. Brambilla, R. S. Brusa, V.M. Byakov, L. Cabaret, C. Canali, C. Carraro, F. Castelli, S. Cialdi, M. de Combarieu, D. Comparat, G. Consolati, N. Djourelov, M. Doser, G. Drobychev, A. Dupasquier, D. Fabris, R. Ferragut, G. Ferrari, A. Fischer, A. Fontana, P. Forget, L. Formaro, M. Lunardon, A. Gervasini, M.G. Giammarchi, S.N. Gninenko, G. Gribakin, R. Heyne, S.D. Hogan, A. Kellerbauer, D. Krasnicky, V. Lagomarsino, G. Manuzio, S. Mariazzi, V.A. Matveev, F. Merkt, S. Moretto, C. Morhard, G. Nebbia, P. Nedelec, M.K. Oberthaler, P. Pari, V. Petracek, M. Prevedelli, I. Y. Al-Qaradawi, F. Quasso, O. Rohne, S. Pesente, A. Rotondi, S. Stapnes, D. Sillou, S.V. Stepanov, H. H. Stroke, G. Tino, A. Vairo, G. Viesti, H. Walters, U. Warring, S. Zavatarelli, et al. (2 additional authors not shown)

    (Submitted on 30 May 2008)

    Abstract: The formation of the antihydrogen beam in the AEGIS experiment through the use of inhomogeneous electric fields is discussed and simulation results including the geometry of the apparatus and realistic hypothesis about the antihydrogen initial conditions are shown. The resulting velocity distribution matches the requirements of the gravity experiment. In particular it is shown that the inhomogeneous electric fields provide radial cooling of the beam during the acceleration.

    Comments: Invited talk at Pbar08 – Workshop on Cold Antimatter Plasmas and Application to Fundamental Physics, Okinawa, Japan, 2008

    Subjects: Atomic Physics (physics.atom-ph); General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology (gr-qc)

    Cite as: arXiv:0805.4727v1 [physics.atom-ph]

    Submission history

    From: Gemma Testera [view email]

    [v1] Fri, 30 May 2008 11:09:41 GMT (262kb)


  • Paul Eaton March 18, 2009, 14:55

    I truly salute all attempts to study antimatter. The potential seems huge and well worth the costs.

    Speaking of, you’ll be interesting in this debate that I just came across concerning the possible importance of antimatter http://www.scientificconcerns.com/Forums/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=776