“This morning, NASA successfully launched the world’s first gamma ray shuttle to the galactic center of the Milky Way. Once there, geo-astronauts say they can mine and harvest enough raw antimatter to power Earth’s energy needs for the next decade. Unfortunately, they won’t be back for centuries…”
|Marc Weber and Kelvin Lynn (l-r)
Lynn – professor in the departments of Physics and Mechanical & Materials Engineering and director of the Center for Materials Research – and Marc Weber, staff scientist in the Department of Physics, have developed an unprecedented concept that could offer the world its first practical method for containing and transporting a type of antimatter particle called the positron.
|Worldwide, one of the biggest threats to human health is a lack of available clean water. Lynn is using positrons to help improve nanofiltration technology that may make water treatment systems much more effective.
In addition, positrons also are used for studying biological, chemical and environmental systems – as well as for measuring atomic interactions, global warming and dark matter. In the world of materials research, positrons help identify defects in semi-conductors, insulators and metals.
Like lasers and transistors – both of which had their skeptics when first invented – Lynn said harnessing positrons could open up a “universe” of unexplored ideas and uses.
“It could happen in your lifetime,” he said.
The concept of an “antimatter” world first arose in 1928 when the fields of quantum mechanics and relativity theory were just emerging. In 1933, American physicist, Carl Anderson confirmed that reality when he identified the first-known antiparticle, the positron, from cosmic rays – and was awarded the Nobel Prize.
(photo: curved line on left gave first proof of an
antiparticle. Courtesy Kelvin Lynn.)
Simply speaking, antimatter is the exact opposite of matter. For every electron, proton or neutron in an atom, there exists a particle of opposite charge. Right now, there actually could be an anti-you sitting in front of an anti-computer in an anti-universe somewhere. But if you happened to meet yourself and shake hands – Boom! When matter and anti-matter meet, they annihilate each other – leaving nothing but energy behind.
“We can create antimatter very easily in the matter world,” said professor Kelvin Lynn. “It just doesn’t live very long because it eventually finds (its opposite) an electron … and annihilates. However, if you put it in a vacuum, it will live forever.”
Lynn and staff scientist Marc Weber are world-renowned for their ability to create positrons. Using a 3 million volt deuteron accelerator in the Keck Antimatter Laboratory, they shoot beams of particles at carbon atoms with such force that they are pounded into unstable nitrogen atoms that further decay, releasing positrons in the process. A similar reaction takes place in the PET scan with positron emission tomography.
In order to harness the energy of positrons, Weber listed three problems that must be overcome.
“We need to be able to generate many positrons; we need a vacuum container to store them in; and then we must convert their annihilation power into something that drives an engine or turns on the lights. Right now we are focusing on the storage problem.”