South West Wales

Antimatter research: Swansea University's £1.6m grant

Blue stars wreathed by warm, glowing clouds
Image caption The universe should not have existed for any longer than a fraction of a second if current models were correct

A £1.6m grant will help Swansea University examine antimatter, and the question of why the universe exists.

The money will go towards buying lasers capable of probing anti-hydrogen atoms, which are currently able to be created for only 15 minutes at a time.

Antimatter is the atomic opposite of the material out of which the universe is created, and if the two meet they explode in an energy burst.

Particle physicists accept that their current models are flawed.

If those models were right, the universe should not have existed for longer than a fraction of a second.

Dr Niels Madsen, who will be heading the research for the university's college of science said: "According to present logic, matter and antimatter should occur in equal quantities, meaning that the universe should have theoretically consumed itself instantly, leaving behind only energy in the form of light.

"But fortunately for us, the universe is made almost entirely of matter with only a few traces of naturally-occurring antimatter ever detected.

"The point of this research is to learn why that should be the case."

Dr Madsen outlined how man-made antimatter from radioactive substances is commonplace, although this is only on a sub-atomic level and lasts a tiny amount of time.

"Almost everyone will have antimatter in their homes - in their smoke alarm," he added.

"When antimatter positrons come into contact with the matter of smoke, they annihilate each other and create heat and light, which is actually what the sensors are detecting.

Atomic level

"Similarly hospital PET scanners fire antimatter particles which turn into light when they touch matter in the body, making an image of what they come into contact with, through the light emitted as they're destroyed."

However, creating antimatter on a larger atomic level which can be sustained for long enough to examine is apparently a different case.

The European laboratory for particle physics, CERN in Switzerland, is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

It is there that they have managed to manufacture atoms of anti-hydrogen, which lasted for up to 15 minutes and were examined with microwaves.

Dr Madsen said: "We will be building on those findings but will invest in better vacuum chambers - so it's longer before the anti-hydrogen comes into contact with matter and disappears, as well as pinpoint lasers to shine light on the atoms created.

"Lasers are so important as whilst matter and antimatter cancel out each other, photons (light particles) are neither matter nor antimatter, and don't therefore destroy the atoms we've created."

Dr Madsen said it was too early to speculate over the impact of the potential findings.

But other commentators and futurologists believe that harnessing antimatter could lead to discoveries as wide-ranging as faster-than-light travel, to the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

Funding for the research is coming from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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