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.


Get the answer.

What is the cost to produce a single gram of antimatter, according to a 1999 estimate by NASA?

Given the costs of equipment, personnel, and raw energy necessary to employ particle accelerators to create antimatter using known methods, NASA placed the cost of one gram of antimatter at $62.5 trillion. (And those are 1999 dollars.)

Put another way, antimatter costs 1.75 quadrillion dollars per ounce, or 2.3 trillion times the value of gold (assuming a conservative gold price of 750 dollars per ounce). It’s 395 billion times the price of rhodium ($4,430 per ounce), the world’s most precious metal. It’s about 2.5 million times the cost per ounce of one-carat, high-quality diamonds (about $710,000 per ounce).

When comparing antimatter to other high-energy fuel sources, the U.S. Department of Energy will sell you an ounce of plutonium-239 oxide for research uses at a mere cost of 4,000 dollars per gram. That’s more than 15 billion times cheaper than antimatter. (Hurry, prices change at the end of the month. Also, for raw weapons-fissile Pu-239, you are encouraged to “call for details.” One imagines explicit nuclear bomb fuel is a bit more expensive.)

All of this, of course, does not address environmental concerns — and we’re not just talking the potential for antimatter to unleash 100 times more energy per annihilated fuel ounce than nuclear fusion. Right now, creating antimatter is hideously energy inefficient. According to an interview the department head of the Antiproton Source at Fermilab gave to in 2001, antimatter requires a billion times more energy to produce than it would release when annihilated. And that’s assuming we harness all the energy released from antimatter-to-matter slam-dancing, since a significant portion of the annihilation byproduct is realized as neutrinos, which are almost impossible to detect, let alone put to practical use. Imagine how much fossil fuel we’d have to burn to make one Next Generation episode’s worth of antimatter.

No wonder NASA has actually contemplated “mining” the Van Allen radiation belt or Jupiter’s magnetosphere to harvest naturally occurring antimatter, rather than try to create their own antiparticle supply. Considering that it costs 10,000 dollars per pound to put something aboard the International Space Station — to say nothing of a round-trip to Jupiter — the fact that collecting antimatter from space would be a cheaper alternative should tell you all you need to know about terrestrial antimatter production.

That’s not just some extraordinary industrial inefficiency, it’s an economically exasperating example of Geek Trivia.

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