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Research team manipulates antimatter atoms with microwaves for the first time ever

by CIFAR Mar 13 / 12

A team of 42 international researchers, including CIFAR physicist Walter Hardy, (University of British Columbia) isolated, stored and recently manipulated antimatter particles of antihydrogen. The team’s third paper in just over a year was published in the prestigious journal Nature. Known as the ALPHA Collaboration, the group consists of physicists from 11 countries working together to trap and study antimatter.

Antimatter particles look identical to matter but have opposite charges. When matter and antimatter particles collide, they annihilate each other and produce energy. Scientists believe that during the Big Bang, antimatter was produced in equal amounts with matter when energy was converted into mass. But what still baffles researchers is why antimatter particles are not freely detected in our universe.

“We know it exists, but why is our universe made of matter and not antimatter? Why are there no antimatter galaxies or asteroids? Is there a difference between the two?” asks Dr. Hardy.

Working with the ALPHA team since 2005, Dr. Hardy’s contribution to the recent findings was his expertise in microwave spectroscopy – an area in which he was able to gain a substantial amount of insight thanks to funding from CIFAR. Over the past few years the ALPHA team has learned how to create and then store antimatter particles in a special “magnetic trap,” first for a fraction of a second, and then for as long as 1000 seconds.

In the most recent finding, Dr. Hardy, along with Canadian Mike Hayden of Simon Fraser University, led the effort to resonantly manipulate antimatter atoms using microwaves. “This study demonstrates the feasibility of applying microwave spectroscopy to fiendishly difficult-to- handle anti-atoms,” says Hardy. The ultimate goal is a precise measurement of antihydrogen’s atomic properties to compare them to the very well-known properties of normal hydrogen. Any discrepancy will yield invaluable information as to why the universe is dominated by normal matter, while the antimatter has all but disappeared.

“CIFAR’s support over the many years has contributed to my education in microwave techniques. It allowed me to focus on developing this knowledge on the side of my normally funded research, which was then used in this groundbreaking experiment. It’s been an honour to have been a part of the Institute for so long.”