"Just 15 km/sec more, what do you say?" — Sandia researcher Marcus Knudson examines the Z insert that sends flyer plates hurtling at phenomenal speeds.


Well, that may be a lousy visual, but researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, have done something like it.

Using the lab's Z Machine, researchers accelerated a small plate from zero to 76,000 mph in less than a second. This is a record for the machine that can propel small plates at 34 km/sec, faster than the 30 km/sec that Earth travels through space in its orbit around the Sun, 50 times faster than a rifle bullet, and three times the velocity needed to escape Earth's gravitational field.

The point of these brief flights is to better understand the extreme conditions found within the interiors of the giant planets Saturn and Jupiter, hasten the achievement of virtually unlimited energy through atomic fusion, and learn more about the condition of the U.S. nuclear stockpile without having to explode a nuclear weapon.

"This is one of the few ways to get hard information on problems at the outer reaches of science, rather than relying on complex speculations that may or may not be correct," says Marcus Knudson, lead scientist in the research.

Z's plates strike a target after traveling only 5 mm. The impact generates a shock wave — in some cases, reaching 15 million times atmospheric pressure — that passes through the target. The waves are so powerful they turn solids into liquids, liquids into gases, and gases into plasmas.

The pressure produces material states rarely seen or measured in the laboratory. When shock waves penetrate a capsule containing deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen), researchers learn more about how hydrogen behaves under extreme conditions, yielding information that may one day lead to controlled nuclear fusion. This potential low-environmental-impact method could produce virtually unlimited energy from seawater.

An upgrade of Z planned for next year is expected to result in plate velocities of 45 to 50 km/sec, says Marcus, driving targeted materials further into their plasma regime.