Exploring collective interactions of matter and antimatter

STRIP AWAY ELECTRONS FROM THEIR ATOMS and you get a plasma — a collection of negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions. But at high energies around compact cosmic objects such as black holes, quasars and pulsars, curious plasmas may form that, instead of ions, contain positrons, the antimatter counterparts of electrons.

Scientists are searching for ways of distinguishing this type of plasma from others, both in astrophysical environments and in laboratories on Earth. Julia Mikhailova, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Matthew Edwards, a graduate student in her lab, together with Professor of Astrophysical Sciences Nathaniel Fisch, found that, contrary to earlier claims, an electron-positron plasma would scatter some wavelengths of light surprisingly intensely via a process called Brillouin scattering.

This fundamental insight into the unusual behavior of matter-antimatter plasmas, published in the journal Physical Review Letters Jan. 8, 2016, may help to find such plasmas in space, or validate methods for creating them in the lab. The work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the National Nuclear Security Administration. –By Bennett McIntosh