Angels and Demons
Can you blow up the Vatican with antimatter?

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.
Many are based on the two BBC OU TV series - Hollywood Science

In Angels & Demons [1] the recent death of the pope has brought together a special meeting of cardinals in Rome. Meanwhile the ancient order of the Illuminati are threatening to blow them up using antimatter recently stolen from CERNs Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. In the film we see the collider quickly making, isolating and storing the antimatter in what looks like a handheld battery-powered magnetic vacuum flask. Can you really do this, and can you make a bomb from antimatter?

CERN accelerates and collides particles at fantastic energies to produce all sorts of exotic particles including antiparticles. However the lifetimes of these particles are very short: you can't simply bottle the products! You would have to isolate the antimatter because if it came into contact with ordinary matter they would immediately annihilate each other!

In the film the antimatter (probably anti hydrogen) would have to consist of charged nuclei like a sort of plasma. High temperature plasmas can be safely isolated within a high vacuum apparatus using very strong magnetic fields but this is something that needs a lot of power and complex vacuum systems. So a handheld device like that shown in the film is not yet plausible.

When a proton (hydrogen) meets an anti-proton (anti hydrogen) they annihilate, converting their mass into energy by Einstein's famous equation E = mc2 , where c is the speed of light and m is the total mass converted. A small amount of mass can produce a great deal of energy and so given enough antimatter a large explosion could indeed be created. In the film we hear that the explosive power of the stolen antimatter is "5k Tonnes" (of TNT), about 1/4 of the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. So how much antimatter are we talking about?

TNT is used as a standard in explosives and is often used to rate nuclear explosions as well. TNT is defined as producing 4.2 x 109 J / ton [2, 3]. If we believe the film we get a total energy of : E = 4.2 x 109 x 5 x 103 = 2.1 x 1013 J, from this we can estimate how much antimatter would be needed in the film scenario. If we assume all the antimatter is released and annihilates with ordinary matter creating energy we get m = E/c2 = 2.1 x 1013 / (3 x 108)2; = 2 x 10-4 kg = 0.23g. As half of this is matter and half antimatter we finally arrive at about 0.12g of antimatter.

1 Mole of antihydrogen or hydrogen (1g) would contain Avagadros number of particles so 0.12g would be about 7 x 1022 'atoms' of antihydrogen. The containment flask volume shown in the film looks a few ml which at first seems reasonable. However CERN estimates that their state-of-the-art systems can only contain 1012 charged antiparticles [4]; millions and billions of times less than the little handheld device in the film is supposed to be containing!

In the film all this antimatter was made in the first few seconds running the large Hadron collider. However according to CERN [4] they can produce (only) 10,000,000 antihydrogen / second - at that rate it would take 230 million years to make the antimatter required in the film! So all in all, it's not looking very good for Angels and Demons.

[1] Angels and Demons, (based on the Dan Brown novel) Columbia Pictures, 2009
[2] For TNT data see:
[3] Explosives by J Read, A great chemistry book and well worth searching second hand internet sites for
[4] For CERN comments about the film see:

How teachers can use these articles in a lesson

Why Hollywood Science

Open University Hollywood Science web site

Call for clips - do you have a film clip that needs investigating?


Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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