A different kind of experiment at CERN

This article, as written by me, appeared in The Hindu on January 24, 2012.

At the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, experiments are conducted by many scientists who don’t quite know what they will see, but know how to conduct the experiments that will yield answers to their questions. They accelerate beams of particles called protons to smash into each other, and study the fallout.

There are some other scientists at CERN who know approximately what they will see in experiments, but don’t know how to do the experiment itself. These scientists work with beams of antiparticles. According to the Standard Model, the dominant theoretical framework in particle physics, every particle has a corresponding particle with the same mass and opposite charge, called an anti-particle.

In fact, at the little-known AEgIS experiment, physicists will attempt to produce an entire beam composed of not just anti-particles but anti-atoms by mid-2014.

AEgIS is one of six antimatter experiments at CERN that create antiparticles and anti-atoms in the lab and then study their properties using special techniques. The hope, as Dr. Jeffrey Hangst, the spokesperson for the ALPHA experiment, stated in an email, is “to find out the truth: Do matter and antimatter obey the same laws of physics?”

Spectroscopic and gravitational techniques will be used to make these measurements. They will improve upon, “precision measurements of antiprotons and anti-electrons” that “have been carried out in the past without seeing any difference between the particles and their antiparticles at very high sensitivity,” as Dr. Michael Doser, AEgIS spokesperson, told this Correspondent via email.

The ALPHA and ATRAP experiments will achieve this by trapping anti-atoms and studying them, while the ASACUSA and AEgIS will form an atomic beam of anti-atoms. All of them, anyway, will continue testing and upgrading through 2013.

Working principle

Precisely, AEgIS will attempt to measure the interaction between gravity and antimatter by shooting an anti-hydrogen beam horizontally through a vacuum tube and then measuring how it much sags due to the gravitational pull of the Earth to a precision of 1 per cent.

The experiment is not so simple because preparing anti-hydrogen atoms is difficult. As Dr. Doser explained, “The experiments concentrate on anti-hydrogen because that should be the most sensitive system, as it is not much affected by magnetic or electric fields, contrary to charged anti-particles.”

First, antiprotons are derived from the Antiproton Decelerator (AD), a particle storage ring which “manufactures” the antiparticles at a low energy. At another location, a nanoporous plate is bombarded with anti-electrons, resulting in a highly unstable mixture of both electrons and anti-electrons called positronium (Ps).

The Ps is then excited to a specific energy state by exposure to a 205-nanometre laser and then an even higher energy state called a Rydberg level using a 1,670-nanometre laser. Last, the excited Ps traverses a special chamber called a recombination trap, when it mixes with antiprotons that are controlled by precisely tuned magnetic fields. With some probability, an antiproton will “trap” an anti-electron to form an anti-hydrogen atom.


Before a beam of such anti-hydrogen atoms is generated, however, there are problems to be solved. They involve large electric and magnetic fields to control the speed of and collimate the beams, respectively, and powerful cryogenic systems and ultra-cold vacuums. Thus, Dr. Doser and his colleagues will spend many months making careful changes to the apparatus to ensure these requirements work in tandem by 2014.

While antiparticles were first discovered in 1959, “until recently, it was impossible to measure anything about anti-hydrogen,” Dr. Hangst wrote. Thus, the ALPHA and AEgIS experiments at CERN provide a seminal setting for exploring the world of antimatter.

Anti-particles have been used effectively in many diagnostic devices such as PET scanners. Consequently, improvements in our understanding of them feed immediately into medicine. To name an application: Antiprotons hold out the potential of treating tumors more effectively.

In fact, the feasibility of this application is being investigated by the ACE experiment at CERN.

In the words of Dr. Doser: “Without the motivation of attempting this experiment, the experts in the corresponding fields would most likely never have collaborated and might well never have been pushed to solve the related interdisciplinary problems.”