CERN’s ALPHA experiment measures charge of antihydrogen

Detail of the ALPHA experiment: Insertion of the ALPHA Penning trap into the cryostat that holds the antihydrogen trapping magnets (Image: Niels Madsen)

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications today, the ALPHA experiment at CERN's Antiproton Decelerator (AD) reports a measurement of the electric charge of antihydrogen atoms, finding it to be compatible with zero to eight decimal places. Although this result comes as no surprise, since hydrogen atoms are electrically neutral, it is the first time that the charge of an antiatom has been measured to high precision.

“This is the first time we have been able to study antihydrogen with some precision,” said ALPHA spokesperson Jeffrey Hangst. “We are optimistic that ALPHA’s trapping technique will yield many such insights in the future. We look forward to the restart of the AD program in August, so that we can continue to study antihydrogen with ever increasing accuracy.”

Antiparticles should be identical to matter particles except for the sign of their electric charge. So while the hydrogen atom is made up of a proton with charge +1 and an electron with charge -1, the antihydrogen atom consists of a charge -1 antiproton and a charge +1 positron. We know, however, that matter and antimatter are not exact opposites – nature seems to have a one-part in 10 billion preference for matter over antimatter, so it is important to measure the properties of antimatter to great precision: the principal goal of CERN’s AD experiments. ALPHA achieves this by using a complex system of particle traps that allow antihydrogen atoms to be produced and stored for long enough periods to study in detail. Understanding matter antimatter asymmetry is one of the greatest challenges in physics today. Any detectable difference between matter and antimatter could help solve the mystery and open a window to new physics.

To measure the charge of antihydrogen, the ALPHA experiment studied the trajectories of antihydrogen atoms released from the trap in the presence of an electric field. If the antihydrogen atoms had an electric charge, the field would deflect them, whereas neutral atoms would be undeflected. The result, based on 386 recorded events, gives a value of the antihydrogen electric charge as (-1.3±1.1±0.4) × 10-8, the plus or minus numbers representing statistical and systematic uncertainties on the measurement.

With the restart of CERN’s accelerator chain getting underway, the laboratory’s antimatter research programme is set to resume. Experiments including ALPHA-2, an upgraded version of the ALPHA experiment, will be taking data along with the ATRAP and ASACUSA experiments and newcomer AEGIS, which will be studying the influence of gravity on antihydrogen.

Read more: "An experimental limit on the charge of antihydrogen" – Nature Communications