After Hours

Geek Trivia: The fact of the (anti)matter

What is the cost to produce a single gram of antimatter, according to a 1999 estimate by NASA? Get the answer to this Geek Trivia question.

To much hoopla and some unfounded fears of particle physics apocalypse, the Large Hadron Collider began its shakedown tests last week, mostly to ascertain whether the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator could actually, you know, accelerate subatomic particles. The collision of said particles at high fractions of the speed of light to create exotic new types of matter and energy won't happen for some time yet, which leaves sci-fi and physics geeks with one painfully unanswered question: When are we finally going to make enough antimatter to build a warp drive?

For those five readers of this column who aren't Trekkies, you should know that the famous faster-than-light warp drives used by starships in the Star Trek franchise of movies and TV shows were powered largely by controlled matter-antimatter reactions. For many of us -- physicists included -- the search for the Higgs boson (the Large Hadron Collider's primary mission) is less intriguing than the possibility making a real-life version of Scotty's engine room.

While the Large Hadron Collider can and will produce some antimatter during its experiments, don't expect a warp core in every garage any time soon. Part of that has to do with human beings having no way of storing antimatter, though presumably one could create ionized anti-helium atoms and store them in a magnetic bottle. The main reason you won't see applied antimatter technology in the near-term is cost -- and not just of the technology, but of the antimatter itself.

While antimatter does occur naturally -- medical PET scans use natural positron emissions that occur during nuclear isotope beta decay -- antimatter is very statistically rare in the universe. (Why that antimatter is so rare is one of the mysteries the Large Hadron Collider will hopefully help solve.) Thus, manufactured antimatter is required for any practical application of antimatter as a power source. The only place to manufacture antimatter is in multibillion-dollar particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, which is part of the reason antimatter is generally regarded as the most expensive substance known to man. How pricey? Well, NASA put a number to it in 1999 and, while recent advances in particle physics may have tweaked the number slightly, it's probably still within the right order of magnitude.

WHAT IS NASA'S ESTIMATED COST TO PRODUCE A SINGLE GRAM OF ANTIMATTER?

Get the answer.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

47 comments
floridaplowboy
floridaplowboy

Actually, I think we are doing this backwards, instead of grabbing anti-matter, shouldn't we spend our time looking for Dilithium (sp?) Crystals first? Unless, of course, the government has already found some? :-)

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Jay, you said, "Part of that has to do with human beings having no way of storing antimatter, though presumably one could create ionized anti-helium atoms and store them in a magnetic bottle." Actually, we do have, and have had, a way to store antimatter. A 'magnetic storage bottle-type' device, also called a 'high vacuum magnetron trap', and typically referred to as a "Penning Trap", has been around since the year I was born, 1959. More to the point, those same guys at CERN have been using a "Penning-Malmberg" trap since roughly late 2002 to actually store tens of thousands of antimatter atoms. Unfortunately, even at peak production, CERN would require, "two billion years to produce 1 gram of antihydrogen" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimatter, 19 Sep 08) The biggest problem with using magnetic storage containers is that the particles stored inside need to have a charge or they can't be confined.

Justin James
Justin James

Minor quibble... gold is measured in "Troy Ounces" not the normal "16 to a pound" ounces, which changes your antimatter-to-gold price ratio. :) J.Ja

asistemas
asistemas

Yeah, a lot of conmotion about the LHC YouTube is filled with videos saying that it will create a Black hole that will destroy the Solar Sistem as we know it. But I think that's just the people that doesn't know how the Particle Acclerators work let alone know anything about High Energy Physics. I just wish they read a little before creating all that conmotion.

DadsPad
DadsPad

As I remember, antimatter was 'magnetically' contained in Star Trek. Maybe gravity would have to be used to contain the antimatter. 'Dark Matter' is so important to scientist today as it is little understood and accounted for, and the main stated purpose of Collider.

gafisher
gafisher

Sure antimatter is expensive now, but that price is bound to go down as production ramps up. As that happens, the market is going to (pardon the expression) explode; NOW is the time to prepare for the Next Big Thing. Hadronix LLC is currently offering Antimatter Futures at the bid price of $135 per microgram (AD2525 delivery) but this price cannot be guaranteed so visit my eBay auction and reserve your Little Piece of Tomorrow, today!

Tink!
Tink!

I'm not a full-fledged Trekkie and did NOT know the specifics on the warp drive workings. However this antimatter stuff is fascinating. Would love to see more - and I'm not about to go researching it on my own (no time). So will watch for posts here on TR. :) I wouldn't mind seeing more stuff on the "real" physics of popular sci-fi inventions too.

RealGem
RealGem

Hi Jay, The LHC will collide subatomic particles, as you said, like protons. But it will also be slamming atomic particles around: specifically lead ions.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

He who holds the ounce can buy countries... So, why dont we get the US out of debt by taking a trip to Jupiter?? And who can we get to buy it?

jsaubert
jsaubert

Oh my Great Bird of the Galaxy! There are actually 5 non-Trekkies on the whole of Tech Republic?!? Ok, so I'm not a Trekkie I just hang out with a huge number of them. I'm more of a Star Wars fan. (Warriors maybe? I have no idea.) I guessed on the cost of antimatter and was fairly close. Only 2.5 trillion off. (-_-); Actually the potential for getting material from the Van Allen belt seems like a good venture. Hopefully an automated system could be devised depending on the size of the equipment need to detect and collect antimatter, especially for something long range, like going to Jupiter.

jacampbell
jacampbell

"the potential for antimatter to unleash 100 times more energy per annihilated fuel ounce than nuclear fusion". Hmm does anti-matter not obey E=mc**2? Or are you thinking of the input mass - where fusion will leave most of the mass behind.

seanferd
seanferd

Which states antimatter is defined as having opposite electric charge, which is not always the case. The comments there are interesting as well.

tim uk
tim uk

It's $4000 per gram, not per ounce, for plutonium oxide 239. As a forfeit, kindly phone them up & enquire the price of weapons grade 239. It may be best to do this from a call box.

deepsand
deepsand

Gotta make sure that I don't exceed my credit limit.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Nice metaphor. BTW, when reading your posts in a feed reader, the link to page 2 is broken. Something to do with redirection through feedburner.

tkeller
tkeller

one of my riddles for elementary school kids; first you ask which is heavier, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers? After they're tricked by that one, follow up with which is heavier, a pound of lead or a pound of gold? Gets 'em every time. :)

seanferd
seanferd

how a singularity (not really a black hole at all) that is smaller than an electron is going to swallow anything, much less exist long enough to move a yard even a substantial fraction of c.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Atomic Bomb Explosion. Many people who where not uneducated in these things where saying that once we split the Atom it would cause a Chain Reaction which would destroy the planet. New Technology new supposed Cataclysms but we just continue to go on looking trying to understand it all. Col

lucien86
lucien86

Sadly you don't seem to understand the gravity of the situation. (pun intended) As someone who's spent far to much time on this stuff, going to all the trouble of learning gravity physics and relativity in detail, I can answer you. If you could do it gravity would be a great solution, sadly gravity is the real problem - its just so slippery. My solution to the energy problem would be to use the tricks of Relativity and wormholes to turn mass into energy without even needing anti-matter. All we've got to do is figure how to mount a few small black holes on a metal disk. - Oh and stop them popping because Hawking radiation makes them explode. Whats needed to do all this is a 'zero point engine' - oh. We are back where we started because a zero point engine is the essential component needed to manipulate gravity - and build a gravity drive, and probably a hyperdrive and other toys to. Its a pity zero point physics is so complicated.

Wally Bahny
Wally Bahny

There's a book written by Lawrence Krauss called The Physics of Star Trek. Check that out in your free time... :-)

Ceespace
Ceespace

now what shall I put in here darn said it all in the title again - shucks!

Wally Bahny
Wally Bahny

I had a friend in high school who referred to himself as a "Warsie". Sounds kinda goofy to me, but...

seanferd
seanferd

Is the perfect example of E=mc² Fusion releases nuclear binding energy, whereas annihilation is total conversion of mass to energy. Nothing here to suggest a violation of the equation.

slurpee
slurpee

According to my research, one kilogram of anti-matter/matter destroying each other would release 19.51 megatons. - or 8.15E+16 joules - of energy, while a fusion reaction of the same amount would release 3.38E+14 joules. So "the potential for antimatter to unleash 100 times more energy per annihilated fuel ounce than nuclear fusion" should be "...over 240 times...."

bmoler@aldenbank.com
bmoler@aldenbank.com

That's right. Fusion builds elements. With antimatter meeting matter its 100% matter (or antimatter) energy conversion!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The user gets carried away with the delete key occasionally, though. :)

Wally Bahny
Wally Bahny

I agree fully. Wouldn't have thought of that one myself... I also have the same problem, at least through IE7. I've just started opening "page 1" in the browser, reading it, and then continuing on to page 2. Probably should've said something earlier...

seanferd
seanferd

Storing antimatter is one thing. Storing enough antimatter to be used as a power source is an animal of a different stripe. How much energy is needed to maintain a magnetic bottle for commercially useful amounts of antimatter? Even if done with efficient superconducting supermagnets, how much does it cost to keep those magnets at a superconducting temperature? How much for safety backup to make sure there never are any leaks? I think extra-atmospheric would be the only way to go, preferably outside any gravity well.

Justin James
Justin James

I remember that riddle too! The funny thing is, is that it has served me well a number of times to remember this difference in "ounces" too, as well as the concept of "weight". A similar one was, "what weighs more, 1 kilogram of lead on earth or on the moon?" The answer is "on earth" since "weight" is a function of gravity on mass. :) J.Ja

seanferd
seanferd

All you really need is two very smooth metal plates very close together. But you'd need a heck of a lot of metal plate.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

as I have never really been a trekkie. However I do like a lot of other sci-fi, and I have all of the original Star Wars on dvd (well remastered at least)

lucien86
lucien86

But your forgetting one tiny thing, it takes a huge amount of energy to get the fusion materials up to the temperature-energy threshold. With matter antimatter collisions, the reaction works at any temperature. ======================================== Its why nuclear bombs are such fundamentally 'safe' devices - because the reaction is limited by the size of the heat bucket. Its also why I stopped believing so much in fusion tech as an energy source a few years ago.

read
read

Amazing. Watch this and learn what it's all about in less than 5 (entertaining) minutes. *All* rap videos should have subtitles like this one has (though they're not really necessary here because the singing is very clear).

fred.wagner
fred.wagner

Loved the video ! - will forward this to my son, who runs the reactor on a US Navy submarine - lots of power in a very small space!

deepsand
deepsand

That humans should chose to voluntarily condemn & punish themselves is so pleasantly ironic as to bring joy to the gods.

santeewelding
santeewelding

I've set my 10,000 servers to work likening those happy places to that grand swirl in the Pacific where all the garbage collects.

seanferd
seanferd

Who claims that comets are made of antimatter. We would just have to catch one. Park it at L4. :D

deepsand
deepsand

If we gods are to avoid giving credence to the claims of those who would hold themselves out to be "chosen" people, we must perforce be equal opportunity nags.

deepsand
deepsand

Given that these are positive equilibrium points, and that each sweeps about the Sun, there is no doubt an extant tenuous cloud of matter orbiting these points with an 89 day period; though, owing to the solar "wind," how much remains trapped there is unclear. Still, it is quite possible that there is a quantity sufficient for serving as "fuel" for a matter/anti-matter reactor.

seanferd
seanferd

As a child, I remember being astonished that there were volumes of space in which one could actually be in a gravitational balance between two bodies, in a practical sense, not just theoretically or only exactly at a zero dimensional point location.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Views all from those serendipitous points in the firmament.

deepsand
deepsand

Given that antimatter has mass which responds to gravitational forces in precisely the same manner as does matter, antimatter stored as said points would, absent a massive perturbation, remain there. Of course, since matter tends to accumulate there for precisely the same reason that it stays there, antimatter stored there would need to be surrounded by a sufficiently large matter shield.

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