How scientists create the most explosive substance in the universe

cern location
CERN is located on the France-Switzerland border.YouTube/CERN
  • CERN is the only place on Earth that manufactures antimatter particles via high-energy collisions.

  • Just a tiny amount of antimatter is capable of generating an explosion equivalent to a nuclear bomb.

  • Luckily, there's not nearly enough money or time to produce enough antimatter for that kind of bomb.

CERN is the largest particle physics laboratory on Earth. Its antimatter factory looks unassuming from the outside and isn't a place where you might think to look for the most explosive material in the universe.

Outside of the Antimatter Factory at CERn in Meyrin, Switzerland.
Outside of CERN's unique Antimatter Factory, which has been making antimatter since 1995.Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Staff / Getty Images

Antimatter is made up of elementary particles identical to regular matter, except with the opposite electrical charge. When the two come into contact, they annihilate, transforming into energy. Just one gram of antimatter could create an explosion equivalent to a nuclear bomb.

Illustration of a bright explosion.
Antimatter is a mysterious material that scientists have only been studying for a few decades and still have much to learn.koyu / Getty Images

Sources: LiveScience, Symmetry

In theory, the Big Bang created matter and antimatter in equal amounts, which should have caused both types of matter to annihilate each other completely. But we live in a universe made almost entirely of regular matter.

big bang
Computer animation of what the Big Bang might have looked like. NASA Goddard

Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory

At CERN's antimatter factory, physicists create antiprotons and antihydrogen to study their properties and help answer fundamental questions about the universe's origins and why we even exist in the first place.

Inside the main room of CERN's antimatter factory.
Inside a main hall of CERN's Antimatter Factory.CERN

To create antimatter particles, physicists start with this Proton Synchrotron Booster, shown here, which delivers an accelerated beam of about 10 trillion regular protons to the Proton Synchrotron.

The Proton Synchrotron machine inside CERN's Antimatter Factory.
The Proton Synchrotron Booster does exactly that: it boosts a beam of protons down a long circular path at blazing speeds.CERN

Source: CERN, Google

The Proton Synchrotron further accelerates the beam along its 628-meter circular path, shown here, and smashes it into a block of mostly the chemical element iridium. The proton beam interacts with the iridium, producing about four antiprotons per every millionth collision. But these antimatter particles still have a long way to go from here.

Inside CERN's Antimatter Factory. A long curved hallway lined with sensitive instruments that help guide fast-moving particles toward powerful collisions.
The protons travel along a circular path. The shape helps speed the particles up faster than a straightaway would.CERN

Source: CERN

The energetic, chaotic-moving antiprotons are then fed into the Antiproton Decelerator, which uses powerful magnets, shown here in blue, to slow the antiprotons down and direct them around the ring of the Antiproton Decelerator.

A powerful dipole magnet used to slow down past-moving particles in the production of antimatter at CERN.
Once antiprotons are produced, they must be slowed down by powerful magnets, like the ones shown here.Maximilien Brice/CERN

Source: CERN

The antiprotons then enter quadrupole magnets, like the red one shown here, which compresses them together, against their natural urge to repel each other.

A red quadrupole magnet used in the making of antimatter at CERN.
The next series of magnets, shown here, help condense and compress the antiproton beam.CERN

Source: CERN

The Extra Low Energy Antiproton Ring, shown here, reduces the speed of antiprotons — to about 1.5% of the speed of light — which helps physicists trap the antimatter particles.

Extra Low Energy Antiproton Ring at CERN's Antimatter Factory.
Eventually, the antiproton beam enters the ELENA Ring, shown here as a series of blue magnets and metal.Maximilien Brice/CERN

Source: CERN

One of the final stages of antimatter production involves a vacuum, otherwise any antimatter would be annihilated when it contacts regular matter. This section of the vacuum chamber heats to around 250°C (482°F) to remove gas and water vapor, leaving a near-perfect vacuum in the middle of the chamber.

Vacuum chamber inside CERN's Antimatter Factory.
The vacuum chamber, shown here, prevents the antimatter from coming into contact with regular matter.Ordan, Julien Marius/CERN

Source: Physicist and antimatter expert at CERN, Sameed Muhammed

A pressure gauge monitors the vacuum conditions to avoid a matter-antimatter encounter. But even if there were such an encounter, these experiments produce such tiny amounts it would take 10 trillion years to make just .25 grams of antimatter, the amount needed for a theoretical "antimatter bomb."

Pressure gauge that monitors the conditions inside antimatter vacuum chambers.
Tools like pressure gauges help monitor what's going on in the vacuum chambers.Ordan, Julien Marius/CERN

Source: Sameed Muhammed

Penning traps, like the one shown here, are cooled to nearly absolute zero temperatures and use an extreme vacuum and an electromagnetic field to trap antiprotons and antielectrons — the building blocks of antihydrogen.

A scientist examining a Penning traps to study antimatter properties.
Penning traps help trap and store antimatter particles for scientific analysis.CERN

Source: Science

Penning traps contain ultra-thin foils, about 1.5 micrometers thick, that further slow down and capture antiprotons sent from the ELENA ring. Before ELENA was installed in 2018 to help slow down antiprotons even more, CERN caught less than 1% of antiprotons it produced. Now, it captures up to 70%.

The end of a Penning trap showing a thin layer of foil that helps capture antimatter particles.
Thin foil strips, shown in blue here, are placed at the end of a Penning trap to help slow and trap antimatter particles.CERN

Sources: CERN, Sameed Muhammed

After ELENA slows them down, antiprotons make their way to different experiments in the antimatter factory. The AEgIS experiment, for example, uses the antihydrogen production trap, shown here, with strong magnets on each side that capture antimatter. Physicists then observe gravity's effect on it.

Instrument used in the capture of antimatter at CERN.
One of the multiple experiments that physicists use to study antimatter's properties once it's been made.Brice, Maximilien/CERN

Source: CERN

Another experiment, called ASACUSA, is testing the theory that antiprotons have the same mass as regular protons, according to the CPT (charge, parity, and time reversal symmetry) theorem.

Image of ASACUSA experiment at CERN's antimatter factory.
Another experiment used to measure antimatter particle mass.Maximilien Brice/CERN

Sources: CERN, University of Oxford

In the ALPHA experimental zone, superconducting magnets filled with liquid helium help trap antiparticles. In 2011, the Alpha experiment at CERN successfully stored 309 antihydrogen atoms, with some atoms remaining trapped for nearly 17 minutes, "which is forever" one physicist described at the time.

A scientist standing near CERN's ALPHA experimental zone in the Antimatter Factory.
The experiment shown here combines antiprotons with antielectrons to create antihydrogen, the antimatter equivalent of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe.Brice, Maximilien/CERN

Sources: CERN, UC Berkeley

Still, antimatter is extremely expensive and inefficient to produce. Making one gram of antimatter would cost an estimated $62.5 trillion dollars. That's why CERN makes such a limited amount — fewer than 10 nanograms in total since it began antimatter production in 1995.

A person examining a piece of equipment at CERN's antimatter factory.
A person examining one of the many instruments in CERN's antimatter factory.CERN

Sources: NASA, CERN

Sameed Muhammed, a physicist working on antimatter production at CERN, helped with photo sourcing and information in this story.

Image of Dr. Sameed Muhammed at CERN.
Sameed Muhammed is a quantum physicist and antimatter expert at CERN.Sameed Muhammed/CERN

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