We had an ACS local section meeting recently in the clubhouse of the Air Force Academy golf course. The featured speaker, a DoD chemist, gave an interesting talk on his work on some of the basic issues relating to the storage of positrons or anti-electrons. In the interest of fairness, since I am writing under a pseudonym, I’ll not wave his name about.
The speakers background is P-Chem and in particular, spectroscopy of isolated species in cryogenic matrices. He pointed out that an atom or molecule or cluster in an inert cryogenic matrix is in a dissipative environment and thus isolated from solvent interactions that might otherwise mask other kinds of phenomena. So it is possible to spectroscopically examine the solid phase environment of the cryo matrix. In other words, an imbedded subject molecule might find itself in an isotropic or ansiotropic environment, depending on the matrix. Infrared spectroscopy could give clues as to the symmetry of the local environment.
It turns out that ortho-hydrogen is an interesting matrix in which to study an important aspect of antimatter storage technology. In order to collect positrons, one has to first find a source of them. While they can be supplied by some kind of nucleosynthesis, an easier route experimentally is to find a radioisotope that emits positrons.
It does not take too long for the would-be keeper of antimatter to move to the problem of storage. If you’re going to have anti-matter, you must think carefully about where you’re going to store it. But there is another issue. The challenge in collecting positrons from nuclear decay begins with slowing them down. As they are emitted they are travelling at relativistic velocities. Positrons, like “regular” beta particles are emitted in a fairly broad band of energies, so slowing them down via some kind of electromagnetic trap would result in very high losses. Instead, a moderator is envisioned to bleed off speed.
Positrons do not automatically annhilate with the first electron cloud they encounter. In fact, positrons were observed early on by the tracks of ionization they left in bubble and cloud chambers. So positrons can move through matter some distance without annhilation.
Electrons and positrons can pair up to give a transient neutral form of matter called positronium. There are two forms of positronium- singlet and triplet- with the difference being the relative alignment of their spins in either a parallel (triplet) or an antiparallel (singlet) arrangement. Singlet positronium has the shortest lifetime at 125 picoseconds and triplet at a relatively long lived 145 nanoseconds.
Back to ortho-hydrogen. Positrons can interact with lattice defects in a solid, resulting in early annhilation losses. It turns out that ortho-hydrogen at 2.3 K can be warmed to 5 K and be annealed to a single crystal structure, largely free of defects. Therefore it is possible to prepare a solid moderator free of positron quenching defects.
This is where the speakers research stands at present. The have uncovered a potential positron moderator that would be part of a collection and storage system. The speaker freely admitted that practical antimatter storage in a container is 100 years in the future. But given the high energy densities available from antimatter, the Air Force is committing modest funds to exploring the issues.
There is work being done to study the positronium Bose-Einstein condensate. It is complicated by the short lifetime of positronium. But fortunately there are ways of storing positrons in storage rings. The annhilation of positronium as a BE condensate would afford coherent 511 keV gamma rays. This would be the basis of a gamma ray laser.