Imagine if science could figure out how to create the entire universe in a lab.
Just think of how many questions could be answered. We could learn things like what really happens inside a black hole or what’s on the other side of wormholes.
Such a feat might even lay the groundwork for amazing things like traveling at warp speed or time travel.
Scientists recently took perhaps a baby step towards such a thing.
Generating Antimatter in the Lab
A group of international researchers has developed a method to produce antimatter in the laboratory, allowing them to recreate conditions similar to those near a neutron star.
In a research lab in Germany, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) facility, two high-intensity laser beams can produce a jet of antimatter, as described in a paper published earlier in the journal Communications Physics. This may make antimatter-based studies much more accessible to researchers across the world.
Why was this research focused on neutron stars? It’s because these collapsing stars are one of the most stable sources of antimatter we’ve ever discovered when they are on the verge of death. Protons and neutrons in these stars’ cores are highly concentrated due to tremendous gravity.
The Densest Matter in the Universe
Neutron stars are ideal for physics phenomena like the generation of antimatter because they have such tight packing. Protons and electrons are squished together in a neutron star’s atmosphere. The matter is so packed that a sugar cube-sized quantity of material would weigh one billion tons, about the same as Mount Everest.
Antimatter, on the other hand, is — as its name implies — the polar opposite of matter. It includes a variety of antiparticles that combine with particles and cancel each other out, leaving just energy behind. A positron is the antimatter version of an electron.
According to most scientists, the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter. So, why are the cosmos teeming with matter when it should contain the same amount of antimatter?
That question has motivated a lot of research on antiparticles.
Why Neutron Stars?
So why did researchers decide to create the environment of a neutron star in the first place?
They did it for two reasons. The first reason is that it’s challenging to generate the extreme conditions of a neutron star in terms of logistics and science. Imagine having that sugar cube weighing the same as Mount Everest in your lab. Two, scientists are eager to create antimatter to analyze it further in the lab.
For example, if researchers want to study something like pulsars — which are ultra-dense neutron stars that spin and radiate light like a lighthouse on a regular basis — they would have to book time at a facility with a giant particle accelerator, such as the Large Hadron Collider.
The ability to generate antimatter in a laboratory may allow scientists to explore the mysteries of high-energy antimatter faster (such as positrons that slam toward Earth’s upper atmosphere).
The Antimatter Creation Process
How did the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf researchers figure out how to produce antimatter? They used a laser pincer configuration, in which two opposing lasers are used.
Positrons are created whenever two high-energy electron beams, which are accelerated by laser pulses that are guided along a plasma channel, have head-on collisions. Synchrotron photons are emitted when they collide with one another and from collisions of their respective oncoming lasers.
In the middle of these lasers are tiny pieces of plastic lasers that shoot toward one another. When the lasers destroy the plastic, clouds of electrons are hurled toward one another. The particles created by this intensely violent collision contain positrons and electrons. The positrons are subsequently blasted away in a dramatic jet.
Extremely Concentrated Matter in a Lab
Scientists can reach a neutron star’s intensely concentrated gravity and matter by smashing particles together between two lasers, much like using a diamond anvil to compress a tiny volume of material.
Physicists use specialized equipment such as these to produce precise conditions for studying tiny and quantum phenomena up close and personal.
Scientists are very optimistic that the laser pincers will function based on a computer simulation that has aided them in testing and validating their hypothesis.
They are now developing a platform that can be used to experimentally test whether the magnetic fields actually form as simulations have predicted.
Yutong He, Thomas G. Blackburn, Toma Toncian, Alexey V. Arefiev. (June 1, 2021). Dominance of γ-γ Electron-Positron Pair Creation in a Plasma Driven by High-Intensity Lasers. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42005-021-00636-x.
Robert Naeye. (August 23, 2007). NASA — Neutron Stars. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/GLAST/science/neutron_stars.html.
AstronomyNow.com. (December 31, 2019). Nearby Pulsar a Likely Source of High-Energy Antimatter Cosmic Rays. https://astronomynow.com/2019/12/31/nearby-pulsar-a-likely-source-of-high-energy-antimatter-cosmic-rays/.