Q: Would it be possible to create an antimatter weapon by “harvesting” enough antimatter, containing it in an electro-magnetic field and placing that in a projectile?

Physicist: Yes, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Anti-matter is generated one particle at a time, randomly, during high-energy collisions.  These collisions produce all kinds of particles, including a lot of light (which is just wasted energy).  But if you want to collect anti-matter, what you’re looking for is anti-protons and anti-electrons (also called “positrons”).

High-energy collisions create sprays of random particles (both matter and anti-matter) with random speeds and directions.

Anti-matter can be gathered, but it’s very slow going (only a handful of particles can be created and gathered at a time).  And, of course, you can’t just put it in a mason jar.  Anti-matter annihilates when it touches any kind of matter at all, so it needs to be stored in an absolute vacuum and suspended away from the walls of the container using the only forces we have access to; electric and magnetic.

The anti-matter created and used in some particle accelerators can be contained using “magnetic bottles” which unfortunately only work with charged particles.  If you’ve got just a few charged particles in a bottle then they won’t repel each other too much, but if you get too many they’ll eventually overwhelm the containing magnetic field.  So, keeping a cloud of completely ionized anti-protons around is pretty out of the question.  To neutralize them they can be combined with anti-electrons to create neutral anti-hydrogen.  This is easy enough, however once anti-matter (or any kind of matter) is electrically neutral it tends to fall out of the field that’s holding it, and annihilates when it hits the bottom of the containing vessel.

Neutral matter is normally very difficult to keep suspended in a magnetic field.  There are a relatively few elements that respond well to magnetic fields, such as iron and cobalt, but most materials barely react to magnets at all.  The reaction that normal materials do have is pretty much just a reorientation of their individual electrons, which is generally a very small effect.  It takes a surprisingly powerful magnetic field to get an ordinary material to budge.

Liquid hydrogen (and also liquid anti-hydrogen) is a little bit paramagnetic, so you might be able to keep it suspended in a carefully controlled magnetic field.  However, there are plenty of engineering difficulties.

Water, which is diamagnetic, being suspended in a sufficiently strong magnetic field of about 10 Tesla.

You’d need an very strong magnetic field, and you’d need to keep the hydrogen close to absolute zero to keep it liquid in a vacuum.

Ideally, you’d like something like anti-iron, which is pretty easy to keep suspended and doesn’t require any special preparation (other than the vacuum), instead of anti-hydrogen.  However, getting elements other than hydrogen always involves fusion, which is notoriously difficult to control; we can make fusion bombs, but not fusion power-plants.  With anti-matter, not only does the reaction have to be controlled, but it has to be executed entirely without touching the anti-matter at any time.  So, best to stick with just the anti-hydrogen.

Anti-matter (anti-hydrogen in particular) requires a hell of a lot of energy to maintain the magnetic fields, and a really good vacuum pump.  Anti-matter is really dangerous stuff to keep around.  The only other stuff that comes close to creating the kind of bang that anti-matter can create is nuclear weapons, but if you leave a nuke on a shelf for too long it becomes inert (safe), while anti-matter never loses its punch (dangerous).  On the other hand, while a nuclear weapon is very difficult to set off correctly, there is no wrong way to set off anti-matter.  The most powerful nuclear weapon ever set off weighed about 30 tons and released about as much energy as a 1 kg chunk of anti-matter.

Despite a “glowing” recommendation like that, in terms of efficiency you get a much better return from fissionable materials (nuclear weapons), considering that you can just dig up the material and then release its energy.  All anti-matter is the result of highly inefficient direct energy-t0-matter conversion.  The total energy released by an anti-matter bomb is always substantially less than the total amount of energy that went into the production.

But, long story short; anti-matter weapons are possible, but not practical.

The water droplet photo is from here.

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9 Responses to Q: Would it be possible to create an antimatter weapon by “harvesting” enough antimatter, containing it in an electro-magnetic field and placing that in a projectile?

  1. Alexander says:

    In space it would be much easier to contain, unless the vessel it’s contained in is accelerating, only a very weak field would be needed to contain the antimatter.
    Would one possibility would be partially ionized (some of the atoms are ionized) hydrogen?
    Partially ionized matter as the containment for positrons could work.

  2. Morgan says:

    BUT…. as soon as you fire such a weapon with antimatter as the projectile would it even reach its target… or would the antimatter self annihilate from contact to the air? the only place that this would be even somewhat effective would be in space where the projectile could actually reach its mark..

  3. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    I was picturing the entire containment apparatus being fired.
    A naked ball of anti-matter might pop where it is, or it might protect itself a little with a kind of explosive Leidenfrost effect and jump all over the place.

  4. DeAndre says:

    what if, first the “gun” shot a invisible/unrecognizable field around the target that the antimatter projectile used as a medium. The field erases annihilation and contains the explosion.

  5. Xerenarcy says:

    you can construct a plasma cannon using the same basic method rather than an antimatter cannon, as it has far more practical energy and containment / confinement requirements. curious what kind of containment you would need and if a plasma cannon would approach practicality…

  6. angel1969 says:

    I would love to build a plasma canon. 2,million volts and a Lil somtin somtin. I can’t give it all away. Let’s make some sic money.

  7. Wannabe physicist says:

    Actually if you used a heavy anti-element (such as anti-iron, or heavier anti-elements) you could fire a beam of antimatter at a target and successfully destroy it. Because there are very very low concentrations of normal iron in the atmosphere, the anti-iron beam would not annihilate until it hit a target with normal iron in it. Or I could be entirely wrong and firing the gun would ionize the air and the anti-iron atoms would be torn apart, into antiprotons and positrons and annihilated.

  8. alexander lee rabanal says:

    i think it would be easier if you would just make a anti matter grenade. you could just use an anti matter container and a matter time realest trigger to set the charge and throw the thing and bang everything gone

  9. Locutus says:

    Suppose an antimatter weapon were detonated, how would it destroy? It creates photons, so would it only kill through radiation poisoning or would it also set things on fire?

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