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Z Machine

February 3, 2014


JOEL LASH: This is the diagnostic package that’s going on this week’s experiments...

Joel Lash manages the world’s largest X-ray machine. It doesn’t look for broken bones or bad teeth, though. Its main job is to help maintain America’s nuclear weapons. But some of its time has also been devoted to basic physics — understanding the properties of matter in extreme conditions.

LASH: This has spectrometers on the top. They’re basically going to measure X-rays coming out of the machine. And from those X-rays we can then understand what’s going on with the physics down inside.

It’s called the Z Machine. It sits inside a nondescript building at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. It stores energy taken from the city power grid in a bank of 36 giant capacitors.

AUDIO: 85 KV. Charging complete, arming to fire....[bang]

The capacitors fire together in a controlled short-circuit. That sends their power racing toward a vacuum chamber at the center of the machine. This jolt carries more than a thousand times the electricity of a typical lightning bolt, but it discharges in less than a millionth of a second. In that instant, it can produce more power than all the world’s power plants combined.

The discharge produces a burst of X-rays, which zap samples of materials placed around the vacuum chamber. Instruments watch how the materials react. Astronomers use the Z Machine to study the stars; more about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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