Scientists come up with antimatter container

By Terri Theodore, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - Antimatter fuelled the Starship Enterprise to go where no man had gone before, but in reality it remained strictly in the realm of science fiction.

Until now.

In an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists explain how that fiction may have taken a step closer to fact with the creation of a type of magnetic bottle that can hold antimatter long enough for scientists to try to unlock the mystery of the antiatom.

About 15 Canadian experts from Simon Fraser University, the University of B.C., the University of Calgary, York University and the TRIUMF national research lab in Vancouver were part of the 42-person team to make the discovery in Geneva.

The exciting device has the usually sedate scientific world in a froth.

"This is really cool," said Marcello Pavan, a physicist with TRIUMF. "We're talking about trapping antiatoms for goodness sakes, this is, you know, `Star Trek.'"

Scientists have been creating antimatter for 15 years, but it moves at about the speed of light and is quickly destroyed. Pavan said the magnetic bottle is able to capture antimatter for about one-tenth of a second before it self-destructs.

"This is science fiction become science fact," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Antimatter is one of the mysteries of science.

Matter is essentially anything that has mass and occupies space — basically everything on Earth.

It's believed matter and antimatter are identical, except that they have an opposite charge and antimatter destroys itself almost immediately.

Now that they can see antimatter, scientists might be able to answer some of the questions about any differences between the two.

Pavan said the amazing device may give some insight into what happened after the Big Bang created the universe.

Physicists have always theorized that when the universe came into being an equal amount of matter and antimatter was created, but all the antimatter disappeared.

"This is like the 900-pound elephant sitting on your couch, you can't ignore it, the fact that we don't know what on earth happened to all this antimatter, which should have been created at the Big Bang," Pavan said.

The project, called the ALPHA Collaboration, was based at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland. CERN is probably best known for its large Hadron Collider, a giant white donut-like structure that is the world's largest and highest energy particle accelerator.

The antiatoms are produced in a vacuum at CERN and the life of the antiatom was extended in the bottle, which is the size of about two of the tubes from inside a roll of paper towels.

In Geneva, Simon Fraser University physics professor Michael Hayden was just heading out Wednesday to celebrate the release of the group's findings.

Hayden said the goal of the creation is to answer a very fundamental question: What happened to all the antimatter?

"It's a very fundamental question. If we look at the universe around us we see that — as far as we can tell — it's composed of matter. Antimatter just isn't there," he said.

Because the hydrogen atom is so well known to scientists, Hayden said they're now comparing that with antihydrogen, something they know nothing about.

"We don't know where this is going to lead. But the ultimate motivation is really to try to address this question: why do we live in a universe composed of matter?"