Ye cannae change laws of physics, Jim (sorry Scotty, we just did)

Employed by science fiction writers as everything from a weapon of mass destruction to the driving force of the Starship Enterprise, the mysterious substance has now been created and stored in a stable long-lasting state for the first time.

Scientists at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, have bottled more than 300 atoms of "antihydrogen" in a magnetic trap for more than a quarter of an hour - 5,000 times longer than has been achieved before.

Just half a gram of antimatter would have the explosive force of 20 atomic bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima.

But Cern points out that amount would take billions of years to make.

An international team at the Alpha facility at Cern reported the success in the journal Nature Physics.

Making and storing antimatter is not an easy task. Previously the same team managed to capture particles of antimatter hydrogen - antihydrogen - in a magnetic trap for 172 milliseconds.

Now the scientists have reported a leap forward in their research by storing antihydrogen for up to 1,000 seconds, or almost 17 minutes, in a stable "ground state".

An antihydrogen atom consists of a negatively charged proton and a positively charged orbiting electron. In contrast, normal hydrogen has positively charged protons and negative electrons.

Professor Jonathan Wurtele, a member of the team from the University of California at Berkeley, said: "At first we needed to demonstrate that we could trap antihydrogen.

"Once we proved that, we started optimising the system and made rapid progress, a real qualitative change."

The ability to keep antimatter for so long makes it possible to conduct experiments on the material for the first time.

Co-researcher Professor Joel Fajans, also from Berkeley, said: "A thousand seconds is more than enough time to perform measurements on a confined anti-atom.

"For instance, it's enough time for the anti-atoms to interact with laser beams or microwaves.It's even enough time to go for coffee."

Scientists are anxious to know whether antimatter obeys the same laws of physics as "normal" matter.

Studying antimatter may also answer a key question about the nature of the universe.

Physicists believe that when the universe was born in the Big Bang, equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created.

Yet antimatter is rarely seen today and what happened to all the original antimatter remains a mystery.

Research scientist Professor Makoto Fujiwara said: "This is potentially a game changer in antimatter research.

"Does antimatter shine in the same colour as matter? Does it experience the gravity in the same way as matter? "These are still very difficult experiments, and they will take long and hard work, but this new result is a very important step.

"Now experiments will be about 10,000 times less difficult than before."