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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Hotel Antimatter

Visitors to the fourth floor of Mayer Hall wouldn’t know it is filled with antimatter—the mirror image of ordinary matter in our universe. But in an inconspicuous corner laboratory next to Revelle Plaza, a team of physicists under the direction of Professor Clifford Surko is building the world’s largest trap for low-energy positrons.

These antimatter particles, also known as antielectrons or positrons, were predicted by English physicist Paul Dirac some 80 years ago. One current use of positrons
is Positron Emission Tomography (the PET scan), used routinely to study human metabolic processes and help design new drugs. But because positrons disappear in a burst of gamma rays whenever they come in contact with ordinary matter, accumulating and storing them is no small feat. Over the past few years, Surko and others around the world have developed new techniques to store billions of positrons for hours and cool them to low temperatures in order to study their slowed movements.

Surko and his team are taking a novel approach in building their trap to hold a trillion positrons. “It’s a ‘multi-cell’ trap,” he says, “an array of magnetic bottles akin to a hotel with many rooms, with each room containing tens of billions of antiparticles.”

—Kim McDonald