To many people, antimatter probably sounds a lot stranger than it really is. In it’s most basic sense, antimatter is just matter with its electrical charge reversed. However, upon meeting, matter and antimatter annihilate one another in a flash of energy.
So what about antimatter bombs?
It seems simple, really. Introduce antimatter to matter and wait for the “BOOM” (of course, with your hands over your ears and your goggles secured firmly to your face…safety first!). But, is building an antimatter bomb realistically viable?
The short answer? No. Not yet, anyway. Rolf Landua, a physicist at CERN, explains:
“If you add up all the antimatter we have made in more than 30 years of antimatter physics here at CERN, and if you were very generous, you might get 10 billionths of a gram. Even if that exploded on your fingertip it would be no more dangerous than lighting a match.”
In the Star Trek episode “Obsession,” one ounce of antimatter reacting with matter is enough to blow up half the atmosphere of an Earth-sized planet. So as Landua’s commentary illustrates, unsurprisingly, an antimatter bomb isn’t as spectacular as science fiction makes it seem. For comparison, one pound of antimatter is equivalent to around 19 megatons of TNT. So yes, antimatter would be stronger than other explosives, but not quite as catastrophic as some sources indicate.
Even if it were possible to produce antimatter at a faster rate, the cost would be enormous. According to Landua, a gram of antimatter would cost approximately a “million billion dollars.”
But let’s imagine a situation where antimatter was free and abundant. The next issue you’d run into is containment. If it shifts the wrong way, if it isn’t contained by the magnets and kept stable, the antimatter will come in contact with the sides of the container and will annihilate…well, whoever happens to be carrying it at the time.
Please? Even Just a Little Bomb?
Okay, okay. There’s a slim possibility we could build a sort of antimatter bomb. It just wouldn’t be fueled by a pure antimatter explosion.
There’s something called antimatter-catalyzed nuclear pulse propulsion. This basically uses small-scale antimatter explosions to trigger “tiny” nuclear explosions. Ideally, groups like NASA and the US Air Force would like to use these methods to fuel spacecraft.
The technology could also theoretically be used to create small and fission-free (very low nuclear fallout) weapons. This would result in less long-term contamination than conventional nuclear weapons, while packing the same strategic punch.
But the weapons would still cost billions, unless we find a more natural source of antimatter to harvest from. That said, the quantities needed for this kind of device (10−13 gram of antimatter, or 1011 anti-hydrogen atoms) are definitely more feasible than those required for pure antimatter weapons. Still, the issue of storing that amount of antimatter prevails. We just don’t have the tech to secure it safely, even if we could somehow acquire it.
Supposedly, the US Air Force, according to this source who cites the RAND Corporation’s published study, has been funding research into antimatter weapons since at least 1983. The four main categories of application they researched include propulsion, power generators, directed energy weapons, and “classified additional special weapons roles”—a.k.a., antimatter-triggered bombs.
Other (Seemingly Destructive) Uses
Scientists working at the University of Michigan have built an antimatter “gun” that can sit right on your desk (pesky coworkers beware the day this goes on the market).
Yet, although it’s called a “gun,” that word is in quotes for a reason. Really, the device is a mini positron creator. Instead of using the huge particle accelerator at CERN to make positrons, this device can create and “spew short bursts of positrons.”
Building on work by researchers at the University of Texas, the team at UM build a device less than a meter long that generates both short bursts of electrons and positrons. Though the emissions last just 30 femtoseconds, they produce quadrillions of positrons. This is a comparable number to those created by the particle accelerator at CERN.
So, if we can’t use this to shoot at our desk mates (I’m looking at you, Dave) what’s it good for? Well, the emissions are very similar to what makes up the jet streams from black holes and pulsars. By studying how the device works, questions about the energy composition and how the particles in the streams interact with outside environments can be answered.
The Most Viable Use for Antimatter: Fuel
It seems that the most viable use for antimatter is fuel (a peaceful use, much to any evil scientist’s dismay, I am sure). NASA’s interest stems from the fact that antimatter could be the ultimate rocket fuel. The current estimate is that antimatter could get us to Mars in 6 weeks, as predicted by the design team at Penn State.
Using a tiny amount of antimatter to set off a nuclear reaction—a.k.a., Antimatter Initiation Microfusion (AIM)—can be a great catalyst for bombs, but it can also be used theoretically to fuel spacecraft. Matter-antimatter annihilation releases the most energy per unit mass of any known reaction in physics. A spacecraft powered by this method would require as little as one microgram of antimatter, depending on the length of the mission.
AIM is also super efficient. The energy released when matter and antimatter collide is about 10 billion times the amount released by traditional hydrogen and oxygen combustion. However, storage continues to be the roadblock in all of these great plans.
Scientists at Penn State have proposed an initial design for antimatter storage rings to be used on spacecraft. The entire antimatter engine itself would consist of a few components including magnetic storage rings, a feed system, and a magnetic rocket nozzle thruster.
As studies progress, it will be interesting to see whether science prevails peacefully, or whether this all blows up in our faces (pun very much intended).
Want to learn more? See these antimatter articles:
- What if Everything was Antimatter but Earth?