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EPSRC Reference: EP/R006474/1
Title: Control and Spectroscopy of Excited States of Positronium
Principal Investigator: Cassidy, Dr D
Other Investigators:
Hogan, Dr S
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Physics and Astronomy
Organisation: UCL
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 October 2017 Ends: 30 September 2021 Value (£): 802,355
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Atoms & Ions
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
No relevance to Underpinning Sectors
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
15 Jun 2017 EPSRC Physical Sciences – June 2017 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Despite the success of the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics there are still some large gaps in our knowledge. Perhaps the most striking of these are the unknown properties of Dark Matter and Energy, and the lack of antimatter in the Universe: the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter according to the SM, but we seem to live in a matter-dominated Universe. These mysteries are driving much current research in particle astrophysics and cosmology, but remain unexplained. As these cosmic problems vex us, we can at least take comfort in our mastery of the physics of ordinary matter, electrons and protons and the like, right? Well, perhaps not; there may be some mysteries there as well: using exotic muonic hydrogen atoms accurate measurements of the proton radius have been found to be in serious disagreement with values measured by hydrogen spectroscopy [R. Pohl, et al. (2010). The size of the proton. Nature. 466 (7303): 213-216]. Our experiments may help to shed some light on these seemingly disparate problems. Our goal is to produce atoms composed of electrons and positrons (known as positronium, or Ps, atoms) and perform high resolution spectroscopy on them.

Before we can do this we have to control them, turning a hot gas into a cold collimated beam. We also have to use lasers to put the Ps atoms into highly-excited Rydberg states: this will prevent the positrons and electrons (which are antiparticles of each other) from annihilating. Creating Rydberg states also gives us a way to control the Ps atoms: a pair of separated charges will have a large dipole moment, and that makes it possible to use electric fields to exert a force on these long-lived atoms. We have already shown that we can produce the right long-lived Rydberg states and that we can control them using electrostatic fields. The next step is to refine what we have learned, and to produce higher quality Ps beams, after we have used time-varying fields to slow them down.

Once we have these cold atoms beams we can perform two kinds of experiments: first we will irradiate the atoms with microwaves and observe transitions between states. Because the atoms will be slow and won't annihilate we can probe them for a long time in order to obtain accurate measurements of their energy levels. This lets us test basic QED theory and measure the Rydberg constant, which is needed in the proton radius measurements. This number relates atomic energy levels to the atomic structure, but it is also necessary to know the proton radius to make this connection. One possible reason for the disagreement between the normal hydrogen and muonic hydrogen experiments could be if the Rydberg constant is not known accurately enough. A more exciting reason could be to do with quantum gravity or extra dimensions, but either way we need to understand the problem. Positronium is a lot like hydrogen except it doesn't have any protons, which means that measurements of the Rydberg constant in this system are not complicated by not knowing the proton size. Of course there are other problems to be overcome, but in principle this measurement might help to understand the present discrepancy.

If we can excite our Rydberg Ps atoms with lots of microwaves then we can create special states (called circular states) that have very long lifetimes, of the order of milliseconds. With atoms that live this long we can measure how they fall in the gravitational field of the earth. This will help answer the question: does antimatter fall differently to matter? If the answer is not "no" there will be profound implications for our existing physical theories. There has never been a direct test, but with very long-lived (and cold) Ps we hope to be able to do the measurement.

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