Scientists trap antiatoms for as long as 1,000 seconds

Two students work on the apparatus at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where physicists trapped antimatter atoms for as long as 1,000 seconds.
Marcelo Baquero-Ruiz/Courtesy
Two students work on the apparatus at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where physicists trapped antimatter atoms for as long as 1,000 seconds.

A group of physicists, including several at UC Berkeley, announced Sunday that they have been able to trap antimatter atoms for as long as 1,000 seconds — nearly four orders of magnitude longer than they had previously been able to achieve.

Published online in the journal Nature Physics, the study — which is a collaborative effort by campus researchers as well as scientists from 14 other universities — shows that the scientists were able to trap antihydrogen atoms in larger quantities and for longer periods of time than ever before.

This in turn has provided them with the means to further investigate the antiatoms’ specific properties as well as the composition of the universe.

The research comes from Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus, an international collaboration that started in 2004. The group’s focus has been to stabilize the trapping of antihydrogen particles to further study the symmetries between matter and antimatter.

Scientists believe that for every particle of matter, there should also exist a particle of antimatter. However, they have observed that there is less antimatter in the world.

In November 2010, the group was able to trap 38 antihydrogen atoms for more than one-tenth of a second each — the first time these antiatoms had ever been contained.

Marcelo Baquero-Ruiz, a campus graduate student and one of the paper’s 38 authors, said that  the significance of being able to trap the antihydrogen atoms for so long — in this case for more than 16 minutes — is that further research can be done on the specific internal structure of the atoms.

“If we can hold these antiatoms for longer, we can study them now, and we can study them with a high precision,” Baquero-Ruiz said.

With the ability to trap hydrogen antiatoms for longer, researchers are now hoping use microwaves and eventually lasers to study them further, he added.

“Our ultimate goal here has been to measure the spectra of antihydrogen and compare it to the spectra of hydrogen as a test of fundamental physical theories and so on and so forth,” said Steven Chapman, a campus graduate student who has been involved with the project.

The recently published research is just the beginning in understanding properties of the captured antiatoms, according to Francis Robicheaux, a professor of physics at Auburn University and a co-author of the study.

“These are the first steps in a long campaign,” Robicheaux said in an email. “We are trying to measure fundamental properties of the antihydrogen atom. The impact will be on the most basic, fundamental theories of physics.”

According to Alex Povilus, a campus graduate student working on the project, studying the antiatoms will also help scientists to understand the symmetry of the universe.

“We’ve noticed that everything appears to be made out of matter as opposed to antimatter, and we don’t know why,” Povilus said. “Hopefully this will help shed some light on that.”

While the Big Bang theory suggests that there should be equal amounts of matter and antimatter in the universe, that is not what scientists have actually been able to see, said Joel Fajans, a campus professor of physics and a co-author of the study.

“This is a basic physics issue,” Fajans said. “This (research) could have profound consequences on the way we think we understand the universe.”