Researchers trap, and cool, antimatter with laser for first time

Scientists have used lasers to influence antimatter (Credits: Getty Images)

Scientists at CERN have managed to trap, and then cool, an atom of antimatter with a laser beam for the first time, opening the door to further study on the mysterious antimatter phenomenon.

Antimatter has all the same properties as the regular matter that we’re made of, except it has an opposite charge. For this reason, matter and antimatter attract each other and when they meet, annihilate.

Because almost the entire visible universe is matter, not antimatter, it is incredibly difficult to store antimatter without it encountering its matter counterpart and then annihilating.

But researchers at CERN in Switzerland have now managed to trap an atom of antihydrogen in a magnetic field and subsequently cool it to a very low temperature.

The cooling, a result of the laser absorbing momentum from the antiparticle, will make it much easier to study the strange particle, as it won’t be moving around nearly as much.

The experiment was part of the antimatter-study group ALPHA, based at CERN, and researchers hope it will transform the field of antimatter research.

‘With this technique, we can address long-standing mysteries like: ‘How does antimatter respond to gravity? Can antimatter help us understand symmetries in physics?’, said lead researcher Takamasa Momose.

First beam in Large Hadron Collider at CERN was successfully steered around full 27 kilometres of world most powerful. (Credits: Getty Images)

‘These answers may fundamentally alter our understanding of our Universe.’

The technique of laser cooling was discovered 40 years ago, when researchers realised photons, the particles that make up light, and lasers, could absorb energy from whatever they were directed at.

Laser cooling revolutionised atomic physics and made possible a number of Nobel Prize-winning experiments.

But researchers hope that the application of the technique to antimatter could shed some light on the mysteries that have surrounded it so far.

One of the biggest puzzles is why the universe appears to be made up almost entirely of matter, not antimatter – what physicists call the ‘matter–antimatter asymmetry problem’.

By cooling the antimatter down to very low temperatures, scientists hope to be able to carry out precision measurements to better understand the phenomenon.

‘It was a bit of crazy dream to manipulate antimatter with laser,’ said Makoto Fujiwara, ALPHA-Canada spokesperson, who originally came up with the laser cooling idea.

‘I am thrilled that our dream has finally come true as a result of tremendous teamwork of both Canadian and international scientists.’

Momose and Fujiwara, who led the Canadian team as part of the ALPHA research, are already at work on a new project, HAICU, to further develop antimatter study techniques.

‘My next dream is to make a “fountain” of anti-atoms by tossing the laser-cooled antimatter into free space,’ said Fujiwara.

‘If realized, it would enable an entirely new class of quantum measurements that were previously unthinkable.

‘Furthermore, we are one step closer to being able to manufacture the world’s first antimatter molecules by joining anti-atoms together using our laser manipulation technology.’

It’s not the first time CERN’s ALPHA project has borne fruit: in 2011, an antihydrogen atom was trapped for a world-record one thousand seconds.

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