What Is Antimatter?

Antimatter is used commonly in modern medicine and even gets produced by the bananas sitting in your kitchen.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
June 6, 2018
Episode #288

Antimatter may sound like science fiction, but it actually surrounds us every day. Antimatter is used commonly in modern medicine and even gets produced by the bananas sitting in your kitchen. (More on that in a minute.)

Antimatter also poses one of the biggest mysteries in physics. When an antimatter particle and its opposite, regular matter particle encounter one another, they annihilate and produce a burst of energy. During the Big Bang, regular matter (the stuff you and I are made of) and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts. Thus we would have expected all of those matter and antimatter pairs to have crashed into one another leaving behind a universe full of energy in the wake of their destruction. And yet, we are here, in a universe full of regular matter stuff.

So what is antimatter? And how can we study it to figure out why it hasn’t destroyed us all?

What is Antimatter?

Matter is made up of atoms which we have mapped out as a nucleus of subatomic particles called protons and neutrons with a number of electrons swirling around it. The kind of atom you have—whether it be hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc.—is defined by the number of protons in the nucleus. (Hydrogen has one proton and carbon has six, while oxygen has eight.) Those protons have positive charge, so when an atom is in its normal state, it has an equal number of negatively-charged electrons to balance out those protons, resulting in a neutral atom. Neutrons, as their name suggests, are already neutral.

So subatomic particles—those proton, neutron, and electron pieces that build together to make an atom—can have charge, and they can also have spin, a quantity that represents the particle’s angular momentum which relates to its speed and direction of rotation.

Every matter particle is believed to have an associated antimatter particle which is identical except for having the opposite charge and spin. For electrons, that antimatter particle is a positron which has the same mass but positive charge and a counter-rotating spin. Physicist Paul Dirac first predicted the existence of antimatter in 1928 and positrons were soon discovered by Carl Anderson in 1932. Both men received Nobel Prizes in Physics for their work.

Although our predictions suggest that antimatter was created in large amounts during the Big Bang, it is rare now, at least compared to normal matter. Antimatter electrons, or positrons, are used in medical imaging to get high resolution views of our bodies. If you’ve ever had a PET scan, that “P” in “PET” stands for Positron (Emission Tomography).

The bananas sitting in your kitchen also produce positrons. You have probably heard that bananas are rich in potassium, an element that always has 19 protons in its nucleus. Different forms of potassium, called isotopes, however, have different numbers of neutrons and differing levels of stability. Bananas tend to have a lot of the isotope potassium-40 which has 21 neutrons and will occasionally decay into argon, a process that spits out a positron every 75 minutes. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that those antimatter positrons are quickly annihilated. Our bodies also contain similar isotopes that result in tiny amounts of antimatter production.