A weird, self-destructive blend of opposite stuffs briefly reigned at the birth of the universe. Recreating it could crack the nut of nuclear fusion
A FRACTION of a second after the big bang, a new type of stuff flooded the universe. It was hot, it was self-destructive and it was weird. It wasn’t matter. It wasn’t antimatter. It was both.
This was the electron-positron plasma, a perfect balance of electrons and their antimatter equivalent. Within seconds, it had blinked itself out of existence: electrons and positrons annihilate on contact, their mass converting entirely into energy.
In some of the universe’s biggest explosions, that process can be reversed, as pure energy spawns matter and antimatter. So we don’t have to go all the way back to the big bang to understand the plasma – its hallmarks are all around us in these mysterious flashes lighting up the night sky.
Just recently, too, we’ve gone one better, replicating in the lab what normally takes place in an exploding star. That’s no trivial undertaking, and raises the question of why we would want to. The reason is that the unique qualities of an electron-positron plasma makes it the ideal test bed for understanding the fundamental workings of more readily available plasmas. And if we can do that, there might be nothing stopping us from unlocking nuclear fusion, a theoretically limitless source of clean, safe power that could solve all our climate woes. […]
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