Calling Tony Stark! The Z Machine at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico is the stuff of comic book legend.
The massive X-ray generator is capable of creating what astronomer Don Winget calls “star stuff,” the same dense plasma that makes up the universe’s white dwarf stars.
According to the University of Texas, for a few nanoseconds the Z Machine creates an electrical current so strong that it equals more than six times the total amount of energy released by all of the power plants in the entire world. Then, in a chamber about the size of a Twinkie, tungsten wires are vaporized by the electricity and hydrogen plasma is formed along with a magnetic field that causes it to implode.
This is where a mild-mannered scientist would gain super powers if we were talking about a comic book. As the magnetic field “pinches” the plasma for an incredibly brief moment, the result is a massive burst of X-ray radiation and the formation of a tiny piece of white dwarf star, which is 10,000 times more dense than the surface of our sun.
You can imagine Joss Whedon framing this shot for the next Avengers movie.
Winget describes seeing a bright flash of light and feeling a giant boom move through him, followed by the rise and fall of a seismic wave that causes concentric circles of dust to expand outward from the laboratory.
All of this takes place in a giant chamber that measures 100 feet across and 20 feet high, originally built to model nuclear weapons. Now Winget and his team hope to use it to study how stars are formed and what goes on in the center of them.
It could also be a step towards harnessing nuclear fusion to meet the Earth’s growing energy needs. For now, it’s the best alternative we have to simply observing stars from across the galaxy, as Winget expressed in an email to his coworker after first replicating the “star stuff”:
Today you, and everyone else on the planet, were closer to a white dwarf photosphere than anyone has ever been … the spectrograph was 5cm away — much better than 30-700 light years we are used to!
Luckily Winget lets non-scientists geek out along with him. He teaches an astronomy course designed for non-science majors, which inspired his student Leah Flippen to create a painting based on a photo of the Z Machine creating flashes of electricity — each one as powerful as a bolt of lightning.