Scientists may have been able to capture elusive atoms of antimatter, but don't expect that to lead to interstellar rocket engines or powerful bombs anytime soon -- if ever.
Even as they announced the important advance in studying antimatter, they emphasized that science fiction uses of the stuff -- like propelling the starship Enterprise in "Star Trek" or fueling a bomb in Dan Brown's book "Angels and Demons" -- remain in the realm of the imagination.
International physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, said they had overcome a basic problem in studying atoms of antimatter. While such atoms have been created routinely in the lab for years, they tend to disappear so fast that scientists don't have a chance to study them.
But in a report published online by the journal Nature, the scientists said they'd been able to trap individual atoms and keep them around for a bit more than one-tenth of a second.
To a particle physicist, that's a pretty long time.
"For us it's a big breakthrough because it means we can take the next step, which is to try to compare matter and antimatter," the team's spokesman, American scientist Jeffrey Hangst, told The Associated Press on Thursday
Hangst and his colleagues, who included scientists from Britain, Brazil, Canada, Israel and the United States, trapped 38 anti-hydrogen atoms individually. Hangst says that since the experiments they reported in Nature, they've been able to hold on to the atoms even longer.
"Unfortunately I can't tell you how long, because we haven't published the number yet," Hangst told the AP. "But I can tell you that it's much, much longer than a tenth of a second. Within human comprehension on a real clock."
Studying such trapped atoms could help answer basic questions in physics, like why antimatter has disappeared from the natural universe while ordinary matter abounds in the stars, planets and galaxies. Theorists say both must have been created in equal amounts in the Big Bang.
Two teams had been competing to trap anti-hydrogen atoms at CERN, the world's largest physics lab best known for its $10 billion smasher, the Large Hadron Collider. The collider, built deep under the Swiss-French border, wasn't used for this experiment.
Hangst's team beat a rival group led by Harvard physicist Gerald Gabrielse, who nevertheless welcomed the result.
"The atoms that were trapped were not yet trapped very long and in a very usable number, but one has to crawl before you sprint," he told the AP.
To trap the anti-atoms inside an electromagnetic field and to stop them from annihilating ordinary atoms, researchers had to create anti-hydrogen at temperatures less than a half-degree above absolute zero.
Hangst played down speculation that antimatter might someday be harnessed as a source of energy or to create a powerful weapon like in "Angels and Demons."
"It would take longer than the age of the universe to make one gram of antimatter," he said, calling the process "a losing proposition because it takes much more energy to make antimatter than you get out of it."
AP Science Writer Malcolm Ritter contributed to this story from New York.
Background on antimatter: http://press.web.cern.ch/livefromcern/antimatter/