Air Force pursuing anti-matter weapons
October 5, 2004 6:43 AM   Subscribe

The U.S. Air Force is quietly spending millions of dollars investigating ways to use a radical power source -- antimatter, the eerie "mirror" of ordinary matter -- in future weapons. "The energy from colliding positrons and antielectrons "is 10 billion times ... that of high explosive," Edwards explained in his March speech. Moreover, 1 gram of antimatter, about 1/25th of an ounce, would equal "23 space shuttle fuel tanks of energy." Thus "positron energy conversion," as he called it, would be a "revolutionary energy source" of interest to those who wage war." Doesn't that just make you feel safer?
posted by acrobat (25 comments total)
But are those metric space shuttle fuel tanks? How many VW bug tanks is that?
posted by Lafe at 6:50 AM on October 5, 2004

Actually, it sounded from what he said that the Air Force is more interested in antimatter as a power source rather than as an explosive. Power consumption is expected to become a big issue for military equipment, so Edwards' interest is understandable. The fact that he's comparing the energy to tanks of fuel instead of atomic bombs is revealing.
posted by unreason at 6:51 AM on October 5, 2004

Also considering the size of the equipment you need to contain antimatter (think massive magnetic rings in a torus shape) I wouldn't quite be that worried unless the Air Force manages to develop a bomber capable of lifting those behemoths.
posted by PenDevil at 6:53 AM on October 5, 2004

Hopefully this will provide the kind of massive power source you would need for a hyperspace jump.
posted by inksyndicate at 6:56 AM on October 5, 2004

Actually, the article pretty clearly states that, at least in private, they're looking at potential use in weapons. And the fact that it might be currently impractical isn't really a reason to dismiss out of hand -- I'm sure before 1945 few people thought an atomic bomb could be dropped from an airplane.

That said, wouldn't it be nice to have a new, powerful energy source without radioactive byproducts?
posted by pardonyou? at 7:09 AM on October 5, 2004

I can think of a zillion good uses for such clean, massive power force, but is there anybody there that doesn't think the first use we'll see would be military? This is how the article ends:

"Besides, Lynn is enthusiastic about antimatter because he believes it could propel futuristic space rockets.

"I think," he said, "we need to get off this planet, because I'm afraid we're going to destroy it."
posted by acrobat at 7:17 AM on October 5, 2004

That said, wouldn't it be nice to have a new, powerful energy source without radioactive byproducts?

Yes. However we already have several. But the current administration won't fund them.
posted by jpoulos at 7:52 AM on October 5, 2004

antimatter is NOT suitable as a fuel for terrestrial vehicles, ESPECIALLY not military vehicles. If the containment system is destroyed or damaged, the antimatter will come in contact with matter and then, well, it blows up.... a lot. Weapons or space vehicles are the only applications I can think of. Seems like they could have used antimatter based weapons in Afghanistan to take care of those deep tunnels without the stigma and fallout of nukes, is what they are thinking about.

God help us all.
posted by n9 at 8:02 AM on October 5, 2004

It is hard to take this article too seriously when the author doesn't seem to grasp the concepts he presents in his own article; positrons and antielectrons are the same thing, so coliding them is a physics experiment, not an energy source. A better introduction to antimatter and the difficulties of producing and using it is here.
posted by TedW at 8:04 AM on October 5, 2004

Military research often produces new and useful products. I am certainly not going to sweat it.
posted by mischief at 8:09 AM on October 5, 2004

Antimatter will never be a grand new energy source for terrestrial use, because there is no natural source of antimatter on Earth. Not only that, but I doubt that there's any natural antimatter of any consequence anywhere in this universe. All the antimatter created in the Big Bang probably would have come into contact with ordinary matter and been annihilated in the first few seconds afterwards, so we're not going to find any floating around anytime soon.

All the antimatter that anyone is ever likely to encounter is and will be artificially created. How do we artificially create antimatter? By pouring gobs and gobs of energy into particle accelerators. That energy has to come from someplace, and that someplace will not be antimatter. So there will be no antimatter power plants supplying electricity to our cities in the future.

The only plausible uses for antimatter is as fuel for spacecraft or other very specialized applications (e.g. naval vessels), or as replacements for nukes. On-the-ground antimatter engines would simply weigh too much and be too big and expensive to be useful to anyone but the military. Nuclear power suffers from the same problem, which is why we don't have nuclear-powered cars or trains. Antimatter engines might conceivably replace nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers and submarines, but that's about it.

I'm not even sure, now that I think about it, that antimatter would work that well as a weapon; it's too volatile and subject to catastrophic failure. It can only be contained by magnetic fields, for example, which would almost certainly have to be electrically generated. For a transportable weapon, that means batteries. What if the batteries get damaged? What if there's a short-circuit? Everyone within a few miles of the thing dies. That's a lot more dangerous than radioactive fallout (for which we have fallout suits), and a lot more unpredictable than the alternative (nukes don't spontaneously blow up). And if there's one thing that military planners hate, it's unpredictability.

on preview: n9 might have a point, especially for land vehicles. It's one thing to have a potential nuclear-sized explosion on a submarine, where the only people likely to die will be the crew; it's quite another to have a potential nuclear-sized explosion rolling down any given highway or rail line in Europe. But the volatility issue remains. I don't know; any way you slice it, antimatter is extremely hard to use for anything practical.

Maybe spacecraft built and launched from orbit, with the antimatter produced in orbit as well (thus avoiding the prohibitive expense of launching a pre-assembled containment system)?
posted by skoosh at 8:13 AM on October 5, 2004

posted by Satapher at 8:24 AM on October 5, 2004

Whatever happened to the mythical "Zero Point" ?

A Massive conspiracy ?

Vaporware ?

A Breakfast cereal ?
posted by troutfishing at 8:30 AM on October 5, 2004

in a world where george bush can turn osama bin laden into saddam hussein, a little antimatter conversion is trivial.
posted by quonsar at 9:12 AM on October 5, 2004

In general, it takes far, far more energy to create and then contain antimatter than what you'll get out of it. As the article states: " the price tag for 100-billionths of a gram of antimatter would be $6 billion". If someone created a safe containment unit for it, it might be useful for interstellar travel, where resources are at a premium. For military purposes, bombs are a heck of a lot easier to build and just as effective. The air force may be 'looking into this' the same way the Germans were 'looking into' sonic weapons in WW2. Neato-roo technology, but not exactly practical.

Another possibility is antimatter- powered "electromagnetic pulse" weapons

We've already got those. "Powering" it with anti-matter is about as useful as powering your blender with anti-matter. Really, what's the point?

advantage of positron weapons in bright red letters: "No Nuclear Residue."

So you can blow a place up, but you don't salt the earth. Great. The buildings and infrastructure are still totalled. I think this quote basically sums everything up, though:

the Air Force has given Smith and his colleagues $3.7 million for positron research

"Well, it was either that, or we get a new gold-plated toilet seat and hammer set for the office, but in the end we thought anti-matter sounded a lot cooler." This is chump change.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:17 AM on October 5, 2004

The thing I like about this is the "tactical to practical" aspect: There are obvious civilian applications to this kind of energy source. Unless I'm missing something, this could be a fairly clean energy technology, for example.
posted by alumshubby at 9:35 AM on October 5, 2004

What you're missing is the fact that it's not an energy source. As mentioned above, you pour a lot more energy into creating and containing it than you get as a yield when you use it. What it is is a very fancy, incredibly dangerous battery; and only as clean as the means by which you produce the energy to create it. I mean sure, we might find some kind of antimatter cloud somewhere in the universe; in the intergalactic wastes (or even further, outside the usual superclusters) where they'd have survived annihilation by stray particles, but to paraphrase an old saying, by the time we have the ability to go there to get antimatter, we won't need it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:55 AM on October 5, 2004

Antimatter will never be a grand new energy source for terrestrial use, because there is no natural source of antimatter on Earth.

Except, you know, salt.
posted by majcher at 10:48 AM on October 5, 2004

posted by troutfishing at 11:19 AM on October 5, 2004

More cataclysmic possible uses include a new generation of super weapons -- either pure antimatter bombs or antimatter-triggered nuclear weapons; the former wouldn't emit radioactive fallout.

There seems to be some confusion. Anti-matter weapons would produce lots and lots of gamma rays. Gamma rays are very dangerous and are the main source of the radioactive fallout of nuclear weapons. However their effect is immediate unlike, that of radioactive isotopes which persist.
posted by euphorb at 1:33 PM on October 5, 2004

And we still won't be any safer from the teenager who carries a suitcase bomb packed with nukes to the corner of main street and first and rendering it useless for 43 years...

When will we learn that the real threats are shifting? What are we going to accomplish with this type of weapon? Obliterating masses of people? Escalating the weapons race? Further disenfranchising an already unheard portion of world population?

At some point, some military officer, or high ranking official must realize that these types of weapons do not create solutions to existing problems.
posted by omidius at 2:28 PM on October 5, 2004

Well, this might finally be the Next Big Thing that will finally, once & for all, put an end to the petty inter-service rivalries.

posted by davidmsc at 8:33 PM on October 5, 2004

On a related note, Pebble bed nuclear reactors.
posted by moonbiter at 2:01 PM on October 6, 2004

Nobody says you have to have it all stored up at once. You could conceivably extract antimatter on the fly and spit it at a convenient iota of matter, yielding enough power to fund the next extraction.
posted by effugas at 7:40 PM on October 6, 2004

You could conceivably extract antimatter on the fly and spit it at a convenient iota of matter, yielding enough power to fund the next extraction.

I don't think you really understand the concept of 'conceivable'.
posted by delmoi at 8:32 PM on October 6, 2004

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