[Nov. 20, 2023: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]
With a staggering valuation of approximately $62.5 trillion per gram, this substance attracts the world’s attention. (Credit: Creative Commons)
When it comes to worldly wealth, most people imagine shiny diamonds, veins of molten gold and rare earth minerals. Yet, beyond this tangible treasure, a far more enigmatic and infinitely more expensive substance lies hidden in the sanctum of cutting-edge physics: antimatter.
With its astonishing valuation of around $62.5 trillion per gram, this substance demands the world’s attention not for its beauty, but for its astonishing properties and the potential it possesses.
The word ‘expensive’ may evoke thoughts of luxury yachts, vast wealth, or more humorously, the pricelessness of love. But few would guess that an elusive substance created in the underground circuits of the particle accelerator could wear this crown.
When we delve deeper into its composition the minerals and gems discovered do not hold a candle to antimatter, which is neither mined nor extracted, but is, instead, a product of human ingenuity and continued scientific discovery. Is the product.
To begin with, what is this elusive and expensive antimatter? What our universe is made of – matter – are the particles we have long understood, namely protons, electrons and neutrons. However, a groundbreaking revelation came in 1930 when physicist Paul Dirac introduced the world to the notion of ‘antiparticles’. These were not merely theoretical discussions.
Dirac’s work led to the discovery of the positron or antielectron, a particle with the same mass as the electron but the opposite charge. Following the same logic, the antiproton and antineutron were identified as the opposites of their regular matter counterparts.
Poetic like the dance of yin and yang, matter and antimatter engage in a graceful tango. But this is a dance of mutual destruction. Their union leads to annihilation, producing energy in a display that underlies Einstein’s iconic E = mc². The energy released from matter-antimatter annihilation dwarfs even the most explosive reactions we know of, like nuclear explosions. Its potential energy release, unimaginably more powerful than our most powerful explosives, trivializes TNT and puts nuclear explosions in the shade.
CERN’s Antimatter Decelerator (AD) is a unique antimatter factory that produces low-energy anti-protons to create anti-atoms. (Credit: CERN)
Still, the potential for antimatter is no mere fantasy. Its unique energy fills the scientific community with excitement and curiosity. However, harnessing its power is no mean feat. The saga begins with a simple hydrogen atom, consisting of one proton and one electron. Its antithesis, antihydrogen, plays an important role in the antimatter story. Like the Romeo and Juliet of matter, the positron feels an irresistible pull toward the antiproton, which mirrors the attraction between electrons and protons.
The creation of antihydrogen is a story of collision and cosmic orchestration. History was made at the CERN Super Collider in 1995, where a significant breakthrough saw antiprotons break into xenon atoms, giving rise to positrons. These positrons, in turn, combine with antiprotons resulting in the birth of antihydrogen.
Given the unstable nature of antimatter, ensuring its stability has become paramount. Scientists achieved a milestone by cooling antihydrogen to near absolute zero, extending its life and reducing its explosive tendencies.
The revelation of antimatter’s staggering cost brings us to the doorstep of technological wonders. The careful design of the antiproton requires precision and innovation at the atomic level. This undertaking is brought to life in vast circuits of particle accelerators, such as the giant 10-mile-long CERN Super Collider.
The Fermilab accelerator complex accelerates protons and antiprotons close to the speed of light. (Credit: Fermilab)
Built with an investment of $4.75 billion over a decade, it has 9300 state-of-the-art super-cooled magnets. Operating at an astonishing 99.99% of the speed of light, it consumes a staggering 120 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to powering an entire metropolis. With an annual operating cost of $1 billion, where the electricity bill alone reaches $23.5 million, it is no surprise that it is estimated to take approximately 100 billion years to produce even one gram of antihydrogen.
Antimatter, in all its elusive glory, represents both a scientific miracle and an economic wonder. Its enormous cost is the result of cutting-edge technology, enormous energy consumption and the sheer tenacity of researchers. As we get closer to unlocking the secrets of antimatter, an undeniable fact is emerging: true knowledge and potential come at a cost, and in the realm of antimatter, that cost is a staggering $62.5 trillion per gram. .
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