San Francisco Chronicle Science Writer
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 most powerful potential energy source presently thought to be available to humanity, antimatter is a term normally heard in science-fiction films and TV shows, whose heroes fly “antimatter-powered spaceships” and do battle with “antimatter guns.”
But antimatter itself isn’t fiction; it actually exists and has been intensively studied by physicists since the 1930s. In a sense, matter and antimatter are the yin and yang of reality: Every type of subatomic particle has its antimatter counterpart. But when matter and antimatter collide, they annihilate each other in an immense burst of energy.
During the Cold War, the Air Force funded numerous scientific studies of the basic physics of antimatter. With the knowledge gained, some Air Force insiders are beginning to think seriously about potential military uses — for example, antimatter bombs small enough to hold in one’s hand, and antimatter engines for 24/7 surveillance aircraft.
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. Another possibility is antimatter- powered “electromagnetic pulse” weapons that could fry an enemy’s electric power grid and communications networks, leaving him literally in the dark and unable to operate his society and armed forces.
[Image by Matt Chisolm]