University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Making white dwarfs in the desert

The “tongues of dragon flame” captured in this image are the leaked charge that emerges from the Z Machine when it fires. Images courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

The “tongues of dragon flame” captured in this image are the leaked charge that emerges from the Z Machine when it fires. Images courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

To re-create the surface of a white dwarf star, University of Texas at Austin astronomer Don Winget starts with roughly the electricity needed to power a few TV sets for the evening. He runs that through a ring of big old generators, all pointing inward toward the center of a machine more than 100 feet across and 20 feet high.

The generators compress the electricity into tight pulses, so it flows into containers holding gas. The gas is ionized with lasers, further compressing the pulses into finer spaces and shorter increments of time. Rinse and repeat until all the electricity flows down into a delicate array of tungsten wires clustered together inside a Twinkie-sized chamber about 35 centimeters from the center of the machine.

Astronomer Don Winget

Astronomer Don Winget

For a few nanoseconds, the power and density of the current is so great — more than six times the total amount of energy released by all the power plants in the world — that it vaporizes the wires, generating a gas-like substance known as hydrogen plasma. It simultaneously produces a magnetic field powerful enough to cause the plasma to implode.

This story comes from Texas Science. It was written by Daniel Oppenheimer.

For that brief nanomoment, as the magnetism “pinches” the plasma, generating a massive burst of X-radiation, Winget has a chunk of white dwarf star of his very own.

With this “star stuff,” Winget and his colleagues are poised to solve many of the mysteries of white dwarfs, which are extremely dense stars that are the ultimate end state of most stars in the universe, including our sun.

They’ll also use that knowledge to gain insight into the archaeological history of star formation in our galaxy, the nature of dark matter, and the conditions at the center of our sun, where the density is close to that of a white dwarf. The experiments may even help push humanity closer to the dream of nuclear fusion as a meaningful energy source.

Read the rest of this story at Texas Science.

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