Quirks and Quarks

'Cool' new Canadian-built laser will help scientists probe antimatter mysteries

The new laser device helps to how to slow the antimatter down, so scientists can get much a better look at it

The device will help scientists get much more precise measurements of antimatter by slowing it down

Makoto Fujiwara — who tested the Canadian-built laser — stands in front of ALPHA (Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus) Experiment apparatus at CERN in Switzerland. (Maximilien Brice)

A pulsing laser that nudges atoms of antimatter with photons to it slow down will allow scientists to make high-precision measurements like never before.

Antimatter is a weird doppleganger of matter, similar in many ways to ordinary matter, but when it comes in contact when normal matter it annihilates and both matter an antimatter are immediately converted to energy. 

At the Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) at CERN in Switzerland, scientists create antihydrogen atoms, but becuase of the problem of annihilation, it's very difficult to create and study.

The new laser device works to slow the antimatter by cooling it down.  It was developed at the University of British Columbia by a member of ALPHA's Canadian team (ALPHA-Canada) and described in a new study published in the journal Nature.

Takamasa Momose, a member of the ALPHA collaboration, poses with his laser system at the University of British Columbia. The main components of the system, used to manipulate antimatter atoms, were designed and built by Momose and students in his lab. (Takamasa Momose)

After the antimatter is created in a vacuum and trapped magnetically, the laser essentially freezes it in place.

So far, the ALPHA-Canada spokesperson, Makoto Fujiwara — senior research scientist at Canada's particle accelerator centre, TRIUMF, said they haven't encountered any limit for how long they can hold the antimatter.

An artistic illustration of the movement of an antihydrogen atom in the ALPHA magnetic trap, before (grey) and after (blue) laser cooling. The images show various lengths of the antihydrogen's track. (Chukman So / TRIUMF)

Fujiwara told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald how this technological advancement opens a world of opportunities to get precise measurements of antimatter's gravity and the the colour it absorbs and emits. 

Data like this could help bring new insights to some of the deepest mysteries about our universe, like quantum mechanics and special relativity, as well as figuring out what happened to the antimatter that was created after the Big Bang. 

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting