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?
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 also follow him on his personal blog.