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Physicists Just Chilled Antimatter for the First Time. With Lasers

We're 'one step closer' to building the first antimatter molecules.

Physicists Just Chilled Antimatter for the First Time. With Lasers
An antihydrogen atom's spiral-like movement in a magnetic trap. Chukman So / TRIUMF

Researchers just announced the first-ever laser-based manipulation of antimatter using a laser to cool a sample nearly to absolute zero, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

This could help us understand why the universe isn't brimming with antimatter, and represents a big step closer to building the first-ever antimatter models.

Manipulating antimatter with lasers is a 'dream come true'

Antimatter is the strange and otherworldly counterpart to matter — showing near-identical behaviors and characteristics, but the two types of matter are radically unstable in close proximity. Upon touching, matter and antimatter mutually annihilate themselves — which makes antimatter unconscionably hard to create and control in our world.

And, until now, it had never been manipulated with a laser.

"Today's results are the culmination of a years-long program of research and engineering, conducted at UBC but supported by partners from across the country," said researcher Takamasa Momose of the University of British Columbia (UBC), who is also with ALPHA's Canadian team (ALPHA-Canada) and lead of the laser's development, in an embargoed release shared with IE. "With this technique, we can address long-standing mysteries like: 'How does antimatter respond to gravity? Can antimatter help us understand symmetries in physics?' These answers may fundamentally alter our understanding of our Universe."

Since laser manipulation and atomic cooling were first introduced 40 years ago, the procedures have revolutionized modern atomic physics — allowing numerous Nobel-winning experiments. The process of cooling antimatter will enable researchers to execute several precision tests — and investigate the characteristics of antimatter, including some experiments capable of shedding light on the fundamental symmetries of the universe.

Such tests might provide new hints about why the universe is composed primarily of matter, instead of equal parts matter and antimatter — which is predicted by Big Bang models.

"It was a bit of [a] crazy dream to manipulate antimatter with [a] laser," said ALPHA-Canada Spokesperson Makoto Fujiwara, who is also a TRIUMF scientist and the initial proponent of the laser-cooling process. "I am thrilled that our dream has finally come true as a result of tremendous teamwork of both Canadian and international scientists."

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We're 'one step closer' to building the first antimatter molecules

Manipulating antimatter with lasers also forges new paths to a wide scope of leading innovations in physics. Fujiwara and Momose are already moving forward with a new Canadian project — called HAICU — which aims to develop new quantum technologies with antimatter applications. "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," said Momose in the embargoed release.

These latest results serve as a watershed moment for decades of antimatter research on ALPHA's part — which started with the creation and containing of antihydrogen for one thousand seconds in 2011 — a world record. The collaboration also gave the world its first glimpse of the antihydrogen spectrum in 2012, assigning limits to gravity's effect on antimatter in 2013, and finally revealed antimatter as a key spectroscopic object in 2020. We're a long way from harnessing antimatter as a viable power source, but the road to engineering applications for the volatile material is paved with advances like this one, with more to come in the coming decade.

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