Antimatter research boldly goes towards physics final frontier

By Rachel Holdsworth - 27 September 2016

Antimatter is the stuff of science fiction: in Star Trek the ‘warp drive’ uses the explosive reaction between matter and antimatter to propel the starship Enterprise through space without fuel. Now a new facility at CERN is to produce and store antimatter particles and experts from Liverpool University, based at the Cockcroft Institute, are leading a research programme to train antimatter scientists.

Professor Carsten P. Welsch of the Cockcroft Institute and Head of the Physics Department at the University of Liverpool explains that a new research and training network called AVA, ‘Accelerators Validating Antimatter physics’, is looking at the mysterious particles that are thought to mirror those in the ‘real’ world.

Prof Welsch says: “Antimatter is difficult to investigate because when an antiparticle and a particle meet they annihilate each other, disappearing in a flash of energy, so a trapping device is needed. By using electromagnetic force fields we have been able to store antimatter inside vacuum vessels, but until now this has been for a very small number of antiparticles for a limited amount of time.

“When ELENA (Extra Low ENergy Antiproton ring) comes online at CERN later this year it will be the first and only facility in the world able to store and then deliver cooled antiproton beams at low energy. This facility will allow us to investigate some of the great unsolved problems in physics and AVA will provide the tools to do this.”

According to scientific theories, every type of matter in the universe created after the big bang should have been accompanied by equal amounts of antimatter (particles with the opposite charge), but this isn’t so. Scientists believe there may be subtle differences between the two types of matter that has allowed matter to wipe out antimatter and for the universe to develop. A better understanding of this phenomenon may create the opportunity for new types of beams with unique properties.

The existing technology for producing and storing antimatter particles at very low energies is very limited. AVA will develop the necessary tools and techniques required to manage low energy storage rings and control the antiproton beams they produce.

AVA is a new European training network brings together five universities, eight national and international research centres and 13 industry partners to carry out interdisciplinary antimatter research and training for 15 Fellows.

Prof Welsch says: “The instrumentation and detectors to be developed by AVA will provide us with much better insight into low energy antimatter beams, so that we will be able to understand and control them better and carry out hitherto impossible experiments. At the same time I expect the technologies that will be developed within AVA to benefit other accelerator facilities around the world.”

This includes the new ELENA facility at CERN, which will allow studies into the effects of gravity on antimatter, precession spectrometry on antihydrogen, and also investigations into antiprotonic atoms. In the longer term, AVA will also support the development of a dedicated Facility for Low energy Antiproton and Ion Research (FLAIR) currently under construction in Germany.

Prof Welsch concludes: “The Fellows trained by AVA will be at the frontier of one of the most exciting areas of physics and will boldly go where no scientist has been before.”

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