Matter / antimatter mass-to-energy conversion probably rates above cold fusion on the totem pole of energy pariahs. At the heart of any viable engine must be a method for combining matter and antimatter to induce mutual annihilation, leading to direct conversion of matter to energy. The first obstacle is that we are surrounded by matter, and antimatter is difficult to come by. The second obstacle is that even if antimatter were available, it would need to be brought into contact with matter in a controlled manner to produce capturable energy. Antimatter improperly stored would simply destroy the first piece of random matter it encountered.
The Internet is replete with sites making unsubstantiated claims about how both problems of antimatter availability and storage can be solved. For instance, www.antimatterenergy.com claims that comets within our solar system are sources of antimatter and that NASA is preparing to capture comet effluent to make rocket fuel. This site misattributes “Astronomers link gamma-ray bursts to supernovas,” an article by Dennis Overbye of the New York Times. Overbye’s article only states that antimatter comets are an “exotic” explanation on par with “alien space wars” to explain high-energy radiation gamma-ray bursts observed by astronomers. As another example, a brilliantly idiotic article posted at www.nextbigfuture.com claims that molecular nanotechnology (whatever that is) will enable feasible antimatter capture and storage. The article also claims that molecular nanotechnology will produce extremely efficient solar panels, which we will most certainly need to solve our energy problems, even after matter / antimatter energy creation becomes commonplace. Do these people even read what they write before they post it?
Back in the real world, there are, in fact, active programs to search space for natural antimatter sources. For example, the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics (PAMELA) mission is looking for the telltale signs of antimatter concentrations (so-called antimatter fountains) within our galaxy. Moreover, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts funded a study called “Antimatter Harvesting in Space” to determine feasibility of collecting wisps of antimatter possibly present in our own solar system to power future deep-space missions.
On Earth, antimatter is routinely created and stored at CERN, a European research center straddling the bounder between France and Switzerland, in its Antiproton Decelerator (AD). CERN’s antimatter supply was used to construct an antimatter weapon in the fictional novel Angles and Demons from Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame. However in reality, the CERN AD is a research instrument, and could never make enough antimatter for either weapons or energy generation. In fact, CERN has posted a humorous Q&A in response to the public’s questions about antimatter bombs and power generation. CERN states, “antimatter does not occur in nature; we first have to make every single antiparticle, and we have to invest (much) more energy than we get back during annihilation.”
That critical point deserves repeating. Just like hydrogen, batteries, and capacitors, antimatter is not a source of energy but instead an energy storage medium. As there are no natural terrestrial sources of antimatter, its utility for energy applications is inexorably linked to how efficiently it is produced and how easily it is stored. According to CERN, only one tenth of a billion of the energy invested to make antimatter is released via mutual annihilation with matter. They put it bluntly: “if we could assemble all the antimatter we’ve ever made at CERN and annihilate it with matter, we would have enough energy to light a single electric light bulb for a few minutes.” According to a NASA feature entitled, “What’s the Matter with Antimatter?” the worldwide production rate of antimatter is on the order of 1 to 10 nanograms per year.
Despite challenges, researchers and companies are pursuing generation and storage of antimatter for commercial ventures, most notably medical applications. For example, Hbar Technologies in Illinois is developing new means of producing antimatter that will be much more efficient and economical than the CERN Antiproton Decelerator. Also, as reported in “Novel solution to antimatter storage” at www.labnews.co.uk, Dr Masaki Hori, a EURYI Award winner, is developing technology to store antimatter with radiofrequencies instead of conventional electromagnetic fields to reduce storage container size.
So, will matter / antimatter energy creation be a viable power source in the future? For space applications, perhaps it will; if there is enough antimatter within our solar system to make collection viable, as it hoped by NASA. However for terrestrial applications, antimatter is only a storage medium, not an energy source. Thus, to be economically viable, antimatter must prove more efficient to generate than store than existing energy media like hydrogen, electrochemical potential in batteries, kinetic energy in flywheels, or even potential energy of water sitting behind damns. Given antimatter’s inherent inefficiencies, mutual annihilation has no chance of beating out more conventional energy technologies for terrestrial energy storage applications.