MEC: Matter in Extreme Conditions

MEC: Matter in Extreme Conditions

The MEC hutch is equipped with a powerful visible-light laser that can create extreme temperatures and pressures in a sample, which are then probed by X-ray laser pulses. The impressive experimental chamber where this happens is in the center of the room, with the laser enclosure surrounding it. A series of optical instruments and diagnostics channels the laser light into the chamber. LCLS is the only place that combines a laser this powerful with X-rays this bright.

The laser has two modes. One shoots a laser pulse every second and produces lower energy, and the other shoots only once every seven minutes, but produces very high energy. The maximum energy produced so far was 200 terawatts; this is more than the energy used by the entire U.S. electrical grid concentrated into a fraction of a second. Researchers are using these high energies to produce ever more exotic states of matter, similar to those in the cores of giant planets and in exploding stars.

In one experiment, the laser heated aluminum to 20,000 kelvins (four times hotter than the surface of the sun) and compressed it to a pressure 4,500 times higher than the deepest ocean depth, so the resulting changes in the aluminum could be studied with the X-ray laser. These studies bring us a step closer to understanding nuclear fusion, the process that powers stars, which scientists hope to harness as a new source of energy.

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The MEC (Matter in Extreme Conditions) instrument at SLAC gives scientists tools to investigate the extremely hot, dense matter at the centers of stars and giant planets. These experiments could help researchers design new materials with enhanced properties and recreate the nuclear fusion process that powers the sun.