Extreme plasma theories put to the test

Aug 06, 2012
The peaks on this chart represent key energy signatures produced in a dense ultra-hot plasma, which for the first time allow detailed measurements of the effects of this plasma environment. Credit: Image courtesy of Sam Vinko, University of Oxford

The first controlled studies of extremely hot, dense matter have overthrown the widely accepted 50-year old model used to explain how ions influence each other's behavior in a dense plasma. The results should benefit a wide range of fields, from research aimed at tapping nuclear fusion as an energy source to understanding the inner workings of stars.

The study also demonstrates the unique capabilities of the (LCLS) X-ray laser at the SLAC National Laboratory. While researchers have created extremely hot and dense plasmas before, LCLS allows them to measure the detailed properties of these states and test a fundamental class of physics for the first time ever.

Plasma is sometimes referred to as the fourth – alongside solid, liquid and gas – and in this case it was hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun (2 million kelvins or 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit). These measurements, reported by an international team of researchers and published this week in Physical Review Letters, contradict the prevailing model that scientists have used for a half-century to understand the conditions inside plasmas.

"We don't think this could have been done elsewhere," said Justin Wark, leader of a group at Oxford University that participated in the study. "Having an X-ray laser is key."

The international research team, which made the plasma by targeting super-thin aluminum with X-rays at LCLS, reported its initial results in January. Now, in a second study based on a new analysis of data from the same experiment, the group tackled another question: How are atoms in such a hot, dense plasma affected by their environment?

The researchers were able to pinpoint how much energy it takes to knock electrons from highly charged atoms in a dense plasma. "That's a question no one's been able to test properly before," said Orlando Ciricosta of Oxford University and lead author of the study, which included scientists from three DOE national laboratories.

The LCLS offers a unique test bed for these studies: It provides a very controlled environment for measuring extreme phenomena, a laser beam with finely tuned energies and a way to precisely measure the properties of a plasma at a specific solid density.

The new analysis gives insight into the sorts of plasmas scientists need to create in some experimental approaches to fusion, the process that powers stars, in which the cores of super-condensed atoms combine and release massive amounts of energy. The research may lead to improved modeling for certain aspects of fusion, as it gives detailed information about the process where tightly packed atoms begin to lose their autonomy as the orbits of their associated electrons overlap.

Scientists use complicated algorithms that may include millions of lines of code to simulate the behavior of superheated matter and build better models of how fusion works.

"Even very sophisticated computer codes used to simulate dense plasmas usually employ an old model from 1966 to simulate the effects of the plasma environment," Ciricosta said. "Our work at the LCLS has shown that this widely used model does not fit the data. In an extraordinary twist of fate, it turns out that an even earlier approach from 1963 does a far better job."

Wark said he expects the findings will have "significant impact" in the community, as the 1963 model can be easily applied to improve existing simulations in a range of fields. However, the complete physics is still far from clear, and he cautioned that more testing and refinement may be necessary.

"We're not going to claim any current model works under all conditions and works for everything," he said. "We would really like people to go and revisit this problem, to see if they can come up with something even more sophisticated."

Explore further: New research predicts when, how materials will act

More information: Physical Review Letters: prl.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v109/i6/e065002
Viewpoint: physics.aps.org/articles/v5/88

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