Scientists create most powerful antimatter beam

Posted by Rick C. Hodgin

Raleigh (NC) - Scientists recently announced they have fired the most powerful antimatter beam ever created.  Comprised of positrons (antimatter electrons) emitted from a large plate and focused into a beam, the emission strength exceeds the previous record held by a laboratory in Munich, Germany.

Earlier this month, students and faculty at North Carolina State's PULSTAR nuclear reactor saw a positron beam 5x more powerful than any other ever emitted by man.  It was created by a device which looks amazingly similar to a warp reactor from Star Trek.

In truth, the PULSTAR reactor is a fascinating piece of equipment.  It's comprised of a few dozen distinct components which, when all working together in unison, creates a 1 megawatt pool-type research reactor.  It's fired by 4% enriched uranium dioxide in pin-type fuel pellets clad in zircaloy.  This particular type of fuel gives PULSTAR characteristics that are very similar to commercial light water power reactors.

The PULSTAR research center also has a wide range of teaching purposes.  For example, a variety of irradiation facilities are used for analytical services.  Their Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) provides academic institutions as well as state and federal agencies, and commercial companies across the country, with data and research.  Other fixed beam facilities on campus also do the same.  Training services in radiation measurements and isotopic analysis are also provided making this a true teaching facility at NC State.

The emitter characteristics are outlined here in this computer simulation.  Basically, the device uses an emitter plate to create positrons.  The math behind how this works would baffle most post-graduate students.  Basically though, a type of electrical and atomic condition is created within the plate which "encourages" the formation and expulsion of positrons.  From there the positron trajectories are altered by fields which guide and direct the positrons into a unified beam.  Without the encompassing field, the positrons would randomly collide with the device, likely consuming it in very short order.

Since this project has now created a successful, powerful antimatter beam, physicsts are looking to turn their attention to practical applications.  Dr. Ayman Hawari, associate professor of nuclear engineering and director of the Nuclear Reactor Program at NC State, told ncsu.edu's Dave Pond, "The idea here is that if we create this intense beam of antimatter electrons ... we can then use them in investigating and understanding the new types of materials being used in many applications."  These include antimatter spectrometers and the long theorized antimatter microscope, a device which is theoretically capable of digging much deeper into the atomic world than those based on matter.  It would reveal data not possible to collect with matter emissions alone.


The PULSTAR extractor lense.  Visit the NC State PULSTAR website to see a full schematic of this device, as well as its history.

The "positron project" began in 2005 with collaboration from NC State, the University of Michigan and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.  Dave Pond's original interview can be found here.