How do you store a substance which vanishes into thin air the moment it comes into contact with any material known to man, even thin air itself?
That was the question vexing scientists attempting to capture antimatter, the mysterious substance that ceases to exist as soon as it encounters its nemesis, matter.
Now, an international team at the Cern institute in Switzerland has managed to create 300 atoms of "antihydrogen" and stop them from collapsing into oblivion for a grand total of almost 17 minutes.
That might not sound impressive to those without a PhD in particle physics, but it was 5,000 times longer than the 172 milliseconds they had previously achieved.
The research, published in the journal Nature Physics, represents a landmark in one of the most potentially profound areas of science.
Antimatter, which has long been the preserve of science fiction, was created in the laboratory for the first time last November. The atoms are the opposite of normal atoms, consisting of negatively-charged protons and positively-charged electrons. If they come into contact with normal atoms they are mutually annihilated.
The significance is that scientists believe matter and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts in the Big Bang, destroying each other so that nothing should have been left to form the universe. The fact we exist and that so much matter remained after this cataclysmic battle is one of the greatest scientific puzzles still to be solved.
The team at Cern have now perfected a way of using a magnetic field to hold antihydrogen, the most simple of antimatter atoms, in isolation for much longer than previously possible. This enables them to conduct far more thorough observations and experiments on the substance, the hope being that some of the biggest secrets about how we came into being will eventually be revealed.
Professor Joel Fajans, a member of the team from the University of California, told i it was beneficial to keep the antimatter atoms for longer because it guaranteed they would be more stable, making it easier to analyse them with lasers beams and microwaves. He said that had the vacuum been working better it would have been feasible to maintain the atoms for as long as a couple of hours.
On The Big Screen
Angels & Demons, 2009
Terrorists plant an antimatter bomb underneath the Vatican, which threatens to destroy Rome.
Star Trek, 1966
The controlled annihilation of matter and antimatter is used to fuel the Starship Enterprise's warp engines.
Star Wars, 1977-2005
The Jedi Interceptor hyperdrive rings use antimatter to provide the starship with enough density to remain in hyperspace. Antimatter is also used in a range of weapons.
Mile-long interstellar spaceships fitted with hybrid antimatter fusion engines can cruise at 670 million miles per hour.
From Nasa: "Evidence indicates our galaxy is made of matter. But the Big Bang theory requires equal amounts of matter and antimatter."