How to Make Positrons?

Positrons, the antimatter counterparts of electrons, have fascinated scientists for decades. But how exactly does one go about making these exotic particles? While positron creation involves complex physics, the underlying concepts can be grasped with a basic understanding of two key processes – positron emission and pair production.

What are Positrons?

First things first – what exactly are positrons? Positrons are subatomic particles that have the same mass as electrons but an opposite charge. Electrons have a negative charge, while positrons have a positive charge. Positrons are a form of antimatter, meaning they annihilate when they come into contact with regular matter. A positron meeting an electron results in the particles destroying each other and releasing energy in the form of gamma rays.

Positrons were first predicted in 1928 by physicist Paul Dirac and later discovered in 1932 by physicist Carl D. Anderson. Since then, scientists have devised various methods to create and study these particles. But why go through the effort of making positrons? Research on positrons enables advancements in areas from medical imaging to high-energy physics. For instance, positron emission tomography (PET) scans rely on the emissions from a radioactive substance injected into a patient.

Positron Emission

The most common natural source of positrons is the radioactive decay process known as positron emission. This occurs when an atomic nucleus undergoes beta plus (β+) decay.

How Positron Emission Works

Certain unstable atomic nuclei contain an excess of protons. In positron emission, the nucleus converts one of its protons into a neutron, releasing a positron and an electron neutrino in the process. This conversion allows the nucleus to become more stable.

The emitting nucleus must have sufficiently low mass and high binding energy for the decay to be energetically possible. Some examples of isotopes that decay through positron emission include carbon-11, nitrogen-13, oxygen-15, fluorine-18, cobalt-56, and rubidium-81.

The positron emission process can be summarized in this equation:

p -> n + e+ + v_e


  • p = proton
  • n = neutron
  • e+ = positron
  • v_e = electron neutrino

The positron rapidly loses kinetic energy through interactions with surrounding matter. It ultimately annihilates with an electron in an atomic orbital or within the material. This annihilation converts the masses of the two particles into pure energy in the form of two gamma ray photons.

Applications of Positron Emission

  • Medical imaging: Positron emission tomography (PET) scans involve injecting a radioactive molecular imaging agent into a patient. The isotopes oxygen-15 or fluorine-18 undergo positron emission decay, and the resulting gamma rays are detected to generate 3D images of organ and tissue function.
  • Material analysis: Positron annihilation spectroscopy can analyze microscopic defects in materials. Positrons are implanted into a material and the gamma rays resulting from annihilation events are measured. This reveals information about vacancy defects in the atomic structure.
  • Basic research: Positron emission enables the study of neutrino properties and weak interactions. Scientists can examine the decay characteristics and energies of emitted positrons and neutrinos.

Pair Production

In addition to radioactive decay, positrons can also be generated through the pair production process. This involves creating an electron-positron pair from a sufficiently energetic photon.

How Pair Production Works

According to Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation, E=mc2, mass and energy are interchangeable. If a high-energy gamma ray photon (electromagnetic energy) interacts with matter, it can spontaneously convert into an electron and positron (mass).

The pair production process can be represented as:

γ → e- + e+


  • γ = high-energy photon
  • e- = electron
  • e+ = positron

The photon must have energy greater than 1.022 MeV for the production of an electron-positron pair to be possible. This threshold energy arises from the rest masses of an electron and positron, which must be created from the photon.

The incident gamma ray interacts with the electric field of an atomic nucleus or electron. The photon essentially “disappears” and its energy manifests as the masses of the produced particles. The electron and positron carry off kinetic energy equal to the excess energy of the photon above 1.022 MeV.

Applications of Pair Production

  • Antimatter generation: Pair production provides a controlled means of generating antimatter. The positrons can be used to form anti-hydrogen atoms for antimatter research.
  • Particle physics experiments: Electron-positron collisions enable high-energy physics experiments investigating the substructure of particles and the nature of forces.
  • Gamma ray detection: Pair production in the atomic fields of a material is exploited in gamma cameras. The electron-positron pairs created are detected to measure incident gamma rays.

Experimental Methods to Make Positrons

Now that we’ve covered the fundamental physics behind positron generation, let’s look at some experimental setups scientists use to produce and capture these antimatter particles.

1. Electron Bombardment of Solid Targets

A common laboratory technique involves firing a beam of electrons at a solid target made of a high atomic number material like tungsten or platinum. Interactions between the electrons and nuclei can result in pair production.

The process plays out as follows:

  • An electron approaches the positively charged nucleus of a target atom at relativistic speeds.
  • The electron is deflected by the nucleus’s electric field. This deflection radiates an extremely energetic gamma ray photon.
  • If the photon energy exceeds 1.022 MeV, it can convert into an electron-positron pair near the nucleus.
  • The positron is emitted from the material. Strong electric and magnetic fields surrounding the target focus and direct the positrons.
  • The electron loses energy within the target and does not escape the material.

Researchers can fine-tune factors like the electron beam energy, target material and thickness to optimize positron yields. Improved collection and focusing methods now enable accumulation rates exceeding 1 trillion positrons per second.

2. Nuclear Reactors

Nuclear reactors generate copious amounts of positrons through the beta plus decay of fission fragment isotopes. During the fission process, an unstable fission fragment nucleus is created that rapidly undergoes positron emission.

The high density of nuclei emitting positrons makes collection challenging. Reactor-based positron sources rely on moderating and cooling the positrons to reduce their energy before capturing them in a magnetic bottle trap. Cooling the positrons also increases the efficiency of accumulating the antimatter particles.

Nuclear reactor facilities provide a reasonably economical means of producing a slow positron beam for physics research. However, the inherent radioactivity limits applications.

3. Antimatter Production

Specialized facilities have been established with the goal of making substantial quantities of slow positrons needed for antimatter production. These laboratories use reactor or accelerator-based sources to generate intense positron beams.

The antimatter atoms created are stored in magnetic traps and used for various experiments. For instance, antihydrogen is synthesized by combining positrons and antiprotons. Scientists can precisely compare antihydrogen and regular hydrogen to deepen our understanding of matter-antimatter asymmetries.

Positron Production Through Gamma Rays

The Breit–Wheeler process offers a potentially cleaner route to antimatter generation. This involves colliding two photons with sufficient energy to produce an electron-positron pair. Unfortunately, the physical limitations make this reaction extremely difficult to induce in the laboratory.

How the Breit-Wheeler Process Works

The Breit–Wheeler reaction was first theoretically described by physicists Gregory Breit and John Wheeler in 1934. They predicted that a positron-electron pair can emerge from the collision of two photons.

The simplest representation is:

γ + γ → e- + e+


  • γ = high-energy photon
  • e- = electron
  • e+ = positron

For the Breit-Wheeler reaction to occur, each photon must have an energy exceeding 510 keV in the center-of-mass frame. The 1.022 MeV mass-equivalent energy gets divided between the electron and positron.

Unfortunately, directly inducing this process requires hazadrously energetic gamma rays. For instance, head-on collisions would need über-powerful 10 GeV photons. Lower energy photons require extremely close alignments to combine their energies.

Challenges of Creating Positrons this Way

Here are some reasons demonstrating positrons through Breit-Wheeler scattering remains experimentally infeasible:

  • Accessing sufficiently energetic photons: Achieving the photons energies needed makes this reaction unlikely. 10 GeV photons are higher frequency than anything created in the lab.
  • Inefficient interaction probability: The optical cross-section for two photons perfectly colliding is miniscule. Near-misses don’t carry enough combined energy.
  • Imaging at the speed of light: Detectors lack the temporal resolution to capture events occurring at light speed.
  • Dangerous radiation levels: The setup would inevitably produce hazardous cascades of electron-photon showers.

Unless there is a major technological leap, this technique won’t contribute substantially to antimatter production. However, physicists continue seeking indirect evidence of Breit-Wheeler positron generation occurring in extreme astrophysical environments.

Key Takeaways on Positron Creation

  • Positrons are subatomic antiparticle counterparts of electrons that annihilate normal matter.
  • Positrons can be generated through radioactive positron emission or pair production interactions.
  • Experimental methods rely on converting energy to matter by bombarding targets, using nuclear reactors, or creating gamma ray photons.
  • Applications span medical imaging, antimatter research, and studying fundamental physics.
  • While conceptually simple, inducing the Breit-Wheeler process to make positrons with photons remains technically unfeasible.

In summary, positrons are fascinating particles that provide a doorway into the mysteries of antimatter. Producing them takes considerable energy and ingenuity. But the physics concepts underlying positron creation—pair production and radioactive decay—are relatively easy to comprehend. With a basic grasp of these processes, you can begin to appreciate how scientists are able to tame antimatter and put it to remarkable use.


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