By Chris Capps 3/8/12
The story of antimatter has been a long and arduous one, with the precious and apparently rare matter in such small trace amounts that humanity may have difficulty gathering it for its more ambitious uses in the near future. Still, after scientists manage to successfully manipulate and indirectly observe the rare ghost particle, some are already wondering about the immense power waiting to be unlocked. And in so doing, they may tell us once and for all just how the universe got started in the first place.
British researchers were able to manipulate an antihydrogen atom (a form of antimatter made from hydrogen) when they fired microwaves at it, resulting in the antihydrogen bouncing like normal matter. This is a huge first for scientists who are now dealing with particles that were once not too long ago considered entirely theoretical. But even when it was in its theory stage, there was no shortage of fans in the science fiction genre exploring the possibilities of harnessing antimatter and what it could mean for civilization. Even the famed series "Star Trek" relied heavily on antimatter to power its vessels.
The problem with containing antimatter is whatever it touches is obliterated along with it. Even if the trace amounts of antimatter were able to be harnessed, we couldn't contain them in a jar as it would be destroyed if it touched the edges of the jar. To circumvent this, scientists have proposed a magnetic harness system to keep the anti-atoms held in place. The system was developed in 2011 by scientists at CERN – currently one of the world's largest antimatter creation factories. The magnets allowed antimatter to be slowed down significantly and frozen for a period of about 1,000 seconds before finally being destroyed. While this isn't ideal for storage or transport, translating to a storage time of approximately one hour before the antihydrogen settles and is subsequently destroyed, it was enough time to allow scientists a rare look in on the behavior of antimatter and speculate on whether it could one day provide us the type of power science fiction has predicted.
In the past, theorists have speculated on antimatter being used for everything from space propulsion to free universal electrical power. There has also, however, been some speculation that the same technology could be used for weapons of war, wreaking havoc and devastation so great it would make nuclear Armageddon seem trivial by comparison. By the time we achieve antihydrogen level technology, however, there may be less need for global conflict than there once was. And perhaps if that peace sustained itself, humanity may take to the stars and spread throughout the galaxy.
While this step forward in manipulating antimatter is not immediately important to the world, it does set a precedent that may in time either turn out to be one of the technological advancements to be humanity's salvation or one of the lynchpins in its demise.