Antimatter – a mirror image of matter – is an idea so revolutionary that even its discoverer initially feared its consequences. It annihilates with ordinary matter, disappearing in a puff of energy – the ultimate scientific experiment. This annihilation is a compelling scenario for science fiction. The first example was robots with brains having antimatter pathways. Now antimatter is used every day in medicine for brain scans. Transforming all its mass into pure energy, antimatter is the perfect fuel. Star Trek’s faster-than-light science-fiction spaceships use antimatter power, but research projects have also investigated the use of antimatter fuel for real.
The excitement caused by the discovery of the positron in 1932 was felt beyond the scientific world: science fiction writers were quick to exploit the new discovery as an attractive plot device. Their imagination produced visions of antiworlds, antistars and antiuniverses, all made entirely of antimatter. Some foresaw matter-antimatter annihilation as the most powerful source of energy in the cosmos, for the propulsion of starships that could travel faster than light.
The 1980s US Strategic Defense Initiative program (better known as ‘Star Wars’) included several projects which looked at the possibility of using antimatter as rocket fuel or to drive space-borne weapons platforms. Antimatter, converting all its mass into energy, is the ultimate fuel. However first the antimatter would have to be manufactured – there is no ‘mine’ of antimatter’!
Antimatter is difficult to produce. In terms of the energy put in to produce high energy proton beams and store them, the efficiency of the antimatter energy production process would be 0.00000001%. Even the steam engine is millions of times more efficient!