16 March 2007

Scalding Hot Ice from the Z Machine

The Z Machine at Sandia is a multipurpose machine whose main purpose is to maintain the reliability of the US nuclear deterrent. But the machine can do many things, including testing methods of nuclear fusion, and using strong magnetic fields to super-compress matter.
Sandia’s huge Z machine, which generates termperatures hotter than the sun, has turned water to ice in nanoseconds.

However, don’t expect anything commercial just yet: the ice is hotter than the boiling point of water.

“The three phases of water as we know them — cold ice, room temperature liquid, and hot vapor — are actually only a small part of water’s repertory of states,” says Sandia researcher Daniel Dolan. “Compressing water customarily heats it. But under extreme compression, it is easier for dense water to enter its solid phase [ice] than maintain the more energetic liquid phase [water].”
Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) laboratory.

In the Z experiment, the volume of water shrank abruptly and discontinuously, consistent with the formation of almost every known form of ice except the ordinary kind, which expands. (One might wonder why this ice shrank instead of expanding, given the common experience of frozen water expanding to wreck garden hoses left out over winter. The answer is that only “ordinary” ice expands when water freezes. There are at least 11 other known forms of ice occurring at a variety of temperatures and pressures.)

“This work,” says Dolan, “is a basic science study that helps us understand materials at extreme conditions.”

But it has potential practical value. The work, which appears online March 11 in Nature Physics, was undertaken partly because phase diagrams that predict water’s state at different temperatures and pressures are not always correct — a fact worrisome to experimentalists working at extreme conditions, as well as those having to work at distances where direct measurement is impractical.

The multifunctional Z machine never fails to amaze me. This type of basic research produces information that can be very useful in the future.

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