SLAC researchers recreate the extreme universe in the lab

April 15, 2016, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Artist representation of laboratory astrophysics experiments. By mimicking fundamental physics aspects in the lab, researchers hope to better understand violent cosmic phenomena. Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Conditions in the vast universe can be quite extreme: Violent collisions scar the surfaces of planets. Nuclear reactions in bright stars generate tremendous amounts of energy. Gigantic explosions catapult matter far out into space. But how exactly do processes like these unfold? What do they tell us about the universe? And could their power be harnessed for the benefit of humankind?

To find out, researchers from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory perform sophisticated experiments and computer simulations that recreate violent cosmic conditions on a small scale in the lab.

"The field of is growing very rapidly, fueled by a number of technological breakthroughs," says Siegfried Glenzer, head of SLAC's High Energy Density Science Division. "We now have high-power lasers to create extreme states of matter, cutting-edge X-ray sources to analyze these states at the atomic level, and high-performance supercomputers to run complex simulations that guide and help explain our experiments. With its outstanding capabilities in these areas, SLAC is a particularly fertile ground for this type of research."

Three recent studies exemplify this approach, shining light on , the cores of giant planets and cosmic particle accelerators a million times more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle racetrack on Earth.

Cosmic 'Bling' as Marker for Meteor Impacts

High pressure can turn a soft form of carbon – graphite, used as pencil lead – into an extremely hard form of carbon, diamond. Could the same thing happen when a meteor hits graphite in the ground? Scientists have predicted that it could, and that these impacts, in fact, might be powerful enough to produce a form of diamond, called lonsdaleite, that is even harder than regular diamond.

"The existence of lonsdaleite has been disputed, but we've now found compelling evidence for it," says Glenzer, the co-principal investigator of a study published March 14 in Nature Communications.

Meteor impacts generate shock waves so powerful that they turn graphite into diamond. Credit: NASA/D. Davis

The team heated the surface of graphite with a powerful optical laser pulse that set off a shock wave inside the sample and rapidly compressed it. By shining bright, ultrafast X-rays from SLAC's X-ray laser Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) through the sample, the researchers were able to see how the shock changed the graphite's atomic structure. LCLS is a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

"We saw that lonsdaleite formed for certain graphite samples within a few billionths of a second and at a pressure of about 200 gigapascals – 2 million times the atmospheric pressure at sea level," says lead author Dominik Kraus from the German Helmholtz Center Dresden-Rossendorf, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley at the time of the study. "These results strongly support the idea that violent impacts can synthesize this form of diamond, and that traces of it in the ground could help identify meteor impact sites."

Giant Planets Turn Hydrogen into Metal

A second study, published today in Nature Communications, looked at another peculiar transformation that might occur inside giant gas planets like Jupiter, whose interior is largely made of liquid hydrogen: At high pressure and temperature, this material is believed to switch from its "normal," electrically insulating state into a metallic, conducting one.

"Understanding this process provides new details about planet formation and the evolution of the solar system," says Glenzer, who was also the co-principal investigator of this study. "Although the transition had already been predicted in the 1930s, we've never had a direct window into the atomic processes."

The interior of giant gas planets like Jupiter is so hot and dense that hydrogen turns into a metal. Credit: NASA; ESA; A. Simon/Goddard Space Flight Center

That is, not until Glenzer and his fellow scientists performed an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), where they used the high-power Janus laser to rapidly compress and heat a sample of liquid deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen, and to create a burst of X-rays that probed subsequent structural changes in the sample.

The team saw that above a pressure of 250,000 atmospheres and a temperature of 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, deuterium indeed changed from a neutral, insulating fluid to an ionized, metallic one.

"Computer simulations suggest that the transition coincides with the separation of the two atoms normally bound together in deuterium molecules," says lead author Paul Davis, who was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and LLNL at the time of the study. "It appears that as the pressure and temperature of the laser-induced shock wave rip the molecules apart, their electrons become unbound and are able to conduct electricity."

In addition to planetary science, the study could also inform energy research aimed at using deuterium as nuclear fuel for fusion reactions that replicate analogous processes inside the sun and other stars.

How to Build a Cosmic Accelerator

In a third example of the extreme universe, tremendously powerful – near supermassive black holes, for instance – propel streams of ionized gas, called plasma, hundreds of thousands of light-years into space. The energy stored in these streams and in their electromagnetic fields can convert into a few extremely energetic particles, which produce very brief but intense bursts of gamma rays that can be detected on Earth.

Scientists want to know how these energy boosters work because it would help them better understand the universe. It could also give them fresh ideas for building better accelerators – particle racetracks that are at the heart of a large number of fundamental physics experiments and medical devices.

Researchers believe one of the main driving forces behind cosmic accelerators could be "" – a process in which the magnetic field lines in plasmas break and reconnect in a different way, releasing magnetic energy.

"Magnetic reconnection has been observed in the lab before, for instance in experiments with two colliding plasmas that were created with high-power lasers," says Frederico Fiúza, a researcher from SLAC's High Energy Density Science Division and the principal investigator of a theoretical study published March 3 in Physical Review Letters. "However, none of these laser experiments have seen non-thermal particle acceleration – an acceleration not just related to the heating of the plasma. But our work demonstrates that with the right design, current experiments should be able to see it."

His team ran a number of computer simulations that predicted how plasma particles would behave in such experiments. The most demanding calculations, with about 100 billion particles, took more than a million CPU hours and more than a terabyte of memory on Argonne National Laboratory's Mira supercomputer.

"We determined key parameters for the required detectors, including the energy range they should operate in, the energy resolution they should have, and where they must be located in the experiment," says the study's lead author, Samuel Totorica, a PhD student in Tom Abel's group at Stanford University's and SLAC's Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC). "Our results are a recipe for the design of future experiments that want to study how particles gain energy through magnetic reconnection."

Meteor impacts, planetary science and are just three of a large number of laboratory astrophysics topics that will be discussed at the 11th International Conference on High Energy Density Laboratory Astrophysics (HEDLA2016), to be held May 16-20 at SLAC.

Other contributions to the projects described in this feature came from researchers at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, Germany; the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, Germany; Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque; the Technical University Darmstadt, Germany; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Oxford, UK; the University of Rostock, Germany; and the University of Warwick, UK. Funding was received from the DOE Office of Science and its Fusion Energy Sciences program. Other funding sources included the Department of Defense; the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF); the German Research Foundation (DFG); the National Center for Supercomputing Alliance (NCSA); the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA); and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Explore further: Shock compression research shows hexagonal diamond could serve as meteor impact marker

More information: Samuel R. Totorica et al. Nonthermal Electron Energization from Magnetic Reconnection in Laser-Driven Plasmas, Physical Review Letters (2016). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.095003

D. Kraus et al. Nanosecond formation of diamond and lonsdaleite by shock compression of graphite, Nature Communications (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms10970

P. Davis et al. X-ray scattering measurements of dissociation-induced metallization of dynamically compressed deuterium, Nature Communications (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms11189

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1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 15, 2016
The title: What if, on our sun there exist a sea of anti-matter. Matter where the protons rotate and the electrons are in the nucleus. What kind of energy will be created at the boundaries of this matter antimatter lake or sea? It's not just impacts. Got this covered?
Da Schneib
4.1 / 5 (9) Apr 15, 2016
It will be very interesting to see if we can integrate magnetic reconnection into current accelerators to increase their power. And metallic hydrogen has been an idea that was hanging around but that no one could prove. The controversy over lonsdaleite has been around for a long time too. This is good science these people are doing.
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 16, 2016
Matter where the protons rotate and the electrons are in the nucleus.

Electrons rotate around protons and not the other way because electrons are far lighter than protons. In fact both rotate around their common center of mass, which is far closer to the proton than to the electron.

But something similar can be obtained with proper antimatter, e.g. antihydrogen, where a positive positron rotates around a negative antiproton. Only it's not a good idea to mix matter and antimatter, because they'll annihilate each other in a short time.
Steve 200mph Cruiz
5 / 5 (10) Apr 16, 2016
Subatomic particles don't orbit around a common center of mass.

The structure of atoms is a result of the strong nuclear force and electromagnetism.
They are so exponentially complicated that even the best supercomputers can only model the simplest of atoms and I'm not sure if we even have computers capable of creating a simulation of any sort of chemical reaction on a quantum level.

If it were just gravity, it would be easy
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 16, 2016
You went 200mph?, with what?
2.3 / 5 (9) Apr 16, 2016
"Magnetic reconnection is pseudoscience." Hannes Alfvén
5 / 5 (4) Apr 16, 2016
Subatomic particles don't orbit around a common center of mass.

True. Mine was a rough approximation of the quantum orbital situation. The point is protons can't orbit electrons; it would be the other way around. The larger particle wavefunction is less spread out anyway.
5 / 5 (11) Apr 16, 2016
"Magnetic reconnection is pseudoscience." Hannes Alfvén
Fast forward to 05 May 2014: Conversion of magnetic energy in the magnetic reconnection layer of a laboratory plasma -- "Magnetic reconnection, in which magnetic field lines break and reconnect to change their topology, occurs throughout the universe..."
2.3 / 5 (9) Apr 16, 2016
Fast forward to 05 May 2014: -- "Magnetic reconnection, in which magnetic field lines break and reconnect to change their topology, occurs throughout the universe..."

Yep, I'm quite aware of that bit of pseudoscience, obviously "peer reviewed" by other pseudoscientists.
"Students using astrophysical textbooks remain essentially ignorant of even the existence of plasma concepts, despite the fact that some of them have been known for half a century. The conclusion is that astrophysics is too important to be left in the hands of astrophysicists who have gotten their main knowledge from these textbooks. Earthbound and space telescope data must be treated by scientists who are familiar with laboratory and magnetospheric physics and circuit theory, and of course with modern plasma theory." Hannes Alfvén
The pseudoscientists in your linked paper fit Alfvén's description to a T.
1 / 5 (4) Apr 16, 2016
You went 200mph?, with what?
- Noumenon
Steve might be a "storm chaser", i.e. tornado

The 200 mph could be a description of an EF5 scale tornado that is at, or above 200 mph, with a wind velocity of >322 km/h and >90 m/s. Total destruction of buildings ensue.

OR he is a race-car driver.

1 / 5 (5) Apr 16, 2016
"Thomas E. "Tom" Sneva (born June 1, 1948) is a retired American race car driver, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1983. He primarily raced in Indy cars, and was named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2005.
A former math teacher from Spokane, Washington, Sneva's win at Indianapolis followed several runner-up finishes and notable crashes."

"At Indianapolis in 1977, Sneva drove his famed Norton Spirit McLaren M24/Cosworth racer for car owner Roger Penske, and became the first driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 at a speed at 200 mph (321.9 km/h) or more. His one-lap track record on May 14 was 200.535 mph (322.7 km/h).[4][5]

"In 1984, Sneva became the first to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 over 210 mph (338.0 km/h) in his Texaco Star March 84C/Cosworth driving for the new Mayer Motor Racing team. His one and four lap track records on May 12 were 210.689 mph (339.1 km/h) and 210.029 mph (338.0 km/h).[6][7]"
1.6 / 5 (7) Apr 17, 2016
Sort of ironic they used particle beams to create their diamonds, that's exactly how the EU proposes they are made.
1 / 5 (4) Apr 17, 2016
Very interesting article. Experimentation is all very well, but these are being done right here on our home planet. My only concern is that physicists don't inadvertently create a Black Hole within their little "universe" in the lab.
1 / 5 (3) Apr 17, 2016
Sort of ironic they used particle beams to create their diamonds, that's exactly how the EU proposes they are made.
- CD85
I read that all natural diamonds, whether gem quality or commercial grade, have "inclusions" within them, without exception. In the best diamonds, the inclusions are extremely slight and difficult to see, but they are there, nonetheless.
I don't know how particle beams could be involved in the creation of diamonds. I always thought that it was extreme heat and pressure far below the surface of Earth and certain chemical changes that produced them.
Captain Stumpy
3.5 / 5 (11) Apr 17, 2016
"Magnetic reconnection is pseudoscience." Hannes Alfvén
1- eu is pseudoscience as it can't be proven and fails (epicly) to provide a means to predict anything other than "plasma did it"

2- Magnetic reconnection can be proven - not just on the sun

but also in the lab


repeating a known false claim doesn't make it more true unless you're training cult members to respond to any logical thought, critical thinking or evidenciary refute... you know, like ken ham telling kids to simply regurgitate "were you there" when talking to any scientist who talks about the age of the earth? (while ignoring the blatantly obvious flood problem)

WOW... ken ham taught you to post your "astrophysicists don't know plasma physics" or "magnetic reconnection" arguments you always post!

so now we know!
Captain Stumpy
3.5 / 5 (11) Apr 17, 2016
@ken ham... er, i mean cantdrive, cont'd
Students using astrophysical textbooks remain essentially ignorant of even the existence of plasma concepts
except that if you actually read any higher education curriculum that has astrophysics taught, it specifically teaches plasma physics, as proven here:

and again here:

so again: repeating your lie only undermines all your own arguments
kinda like you also did here:

if you took just a few minutes out of your busy pseudoscience posting day to actually read up on MS astrophysics, you would learn why the eu is fallacious pseudoscience

5 / 5 (4) Apr 17, 2016
@O_socks, so you're saying "Thomas E. "Tom" Sneva" is Steve Cruiz?
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 17, 2016
I don't know how particle beams could be involved in the creation of diamonds. I always thought that it was extreme heat and pressure far below the surface of Earth and certain chemical changes that produced them.

Read the article above, they used a laser to create lonsdaleite. The beams impart the heat and pressure necessary to cause the graphite to change to diamond. It should be noted that concentrations of diamonds often occur in craters, not due to impact events but due to large scale arc discharges on Earth's surface.
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (8) Apr 17, 2016
It should be noted that concentrations of diamonds often occur in craters, not due to impact events but due to large scale arc discharges on Earth's surface
@kan, i mean cantthink
if only there were a way to check your facts and determine if it is possible to create diamonds with high pressure...
oh wait: http://www.miadon...spx#HPHT

so... we know we can replicate the physical processes to make diamonds out of pressure and it doesn't require a plasma discharge (see link)... and we know that there is likely no plasma acting in concert to geological diamonds... so this is yet another epic depiction of confirmation bias on your part (and D-K)

perhaps you should consider using this link?

learn about real science rather than being a cult acolyte
Steve 200mph Cruiz
5 / 5 (5) Apr 17, 2016
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 17, 2016
"Magnetic reconnection is pseudoscience." Hannes Alfvén

Great scientists can be wrong.

There are hundreds/thousands of them (great being a loosely applied term) which are trying to resolve this already described phenomenon by relying on pseudoscientific musings of breaking and reconnecting field lines. Alfven is not wrong on this, he was presented a problem, he observed it, he theorized a solution, and through application solved the problem. Astrophysicists, being ignorant of plasma physics as they are, insist on "reinventing the wheel" which Alfven solved some 80 years ago using empirical science.
Captain Stumpy
3 / 5 (6) Apr 17, 2016
There are hundreds/thousands of them
starting with the known Alfven issue which you so readily propagate even though it's proven absolutely false by evidence! (meaning - your claims about astro's not knowing plasma physics or your magnetic reconnection claims)

for refute of your false claims, see:


Alfven is not wrong on this
except the evidence i just linked proved not only he is wrong, but that your intentional repetition of the false claim makes you a cult member, not an evidence based science advocate

it's not just evidence, it is validated, replicated evidence from plasma physicists (and astrophysicists as well, mind you, if you take the time to actually read the science)

but don't let facts get in the way of your delusional faith based religion

it never has before...
Steve 200mph Cruiz
4.7 / 5 (6) Apr 17, 2016
I was talking about atoms in their entirety, that includes the nucleus naturally.
Yeah electron shells are modeled, but electromagnetism has effects on the nucleus, especially in large atoms.
Just describing the behavior of electrons isn't even a full description of the electromagnetic force within an atom.

We have plenty of room to grow from our current capabilities, that's why quantum computers will be so useful, well finally be able to actually model all sorts of quantum phenomena that involve multiple/larger atoms, which means better everything; from superconductors to batteries, to maybe better fission and fusion techniques
Da Schneib
4 / 5 (4) Apr 17, 2016
Just describing the behavior of electrons isn't even a full description of the electromagnetic force within an atom.
It's darn near a complete description from a chemical standpoint. There are only a few edge cases where nuclear dynamics come into play. And our ability to simulate it grows day by day as available computing power grows. We're not using any strong force in those simulations; the nucleus is modeled essentially as a point source of positive charge. The problems with simulation of large collections of atoms aren't complexity introduced by the strong force. They're problems caused by large input data sets. A single atom with circa fifty electrons is a major system with thousands of variables even with the nucleus modeled very simply as above, and two of them isn't just twice as complex, more like ten times.
5 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2016
They are so exponentially complicated that even the best supercomputers can only model the simplest of atoms [….] on a quantum level.

Atoms can be modelled with incredible accuracy and speed

"… is impossible to represent the results of quantum mechanics with a classical universal device. [standard computer – Turing]" – Richard Feynman (1982)

To go beyond numerical-simulation**,….. to properly 'model' a quantum system "on a quantum level", you need either a quantum computer, or you need to emulate one, … (i.e. modification to the physical substrate of a classical computer.)

**which requires simplifying assumptions contingent, a-priori upon the specific problem ;
5 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2016
@Phys1,... Feynmans quote applies as much today as it did when he introduced the idea of a quantum simulator as expressed in my above link to that paper,... and as expressed

As I said it is possible to numerically simulate quantum systems with appropriate simplifying conditions ,.... but not to properly model quantum systems using classical based machines.

What is lacking in the case of NPhys is the theory, much more than the computational power.

I would advise reading Feynmans entire paper on quantum computers. It is not simply a matter of computational power, nor lack of atomic understanding ,... but rather structural computational architecture.

5 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2016
EDIT: ....and as expressed In The Link

"Conventional computers, including supercomputers, are inadequate for simulating quantum systems with as few as 30 particles"

Whenever one utters 'Feynmans statement does not apply', it may be a good idea to recheck themselves.

2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2016
@O_socks, so you're saying "Thomas E. "Tom" Sneva" is Steve Cruiz?
- Noumenon
My lips are sealed.

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