The Z Machine Is Science-Faction

“The Z Machine” sounds like something out of science-fiction, but it’s the largest X-ray generator in the world. Which sounds even more like science-fiction. And if it that’s what it sounds like, it looks like something Michael Bay would cut from a movie’s storyboards for being too awesome to exist with current special effects.

Which is why physicists built it with real current effects instead.

More lightning than Zeus enraged by Thor rubbing cats on him.

More lightning than Zeus enraged by Thor rubbing cats on him.

The PBFA-Z (Particle Beam Fusion Accelerator, Z-pinch version) subjects a target to a current of over 20 million amps – more than  six hundred simultaneous lightning bolts – and pressures of over 10 million atmospheres. It can reach temperatures of over two billion degrees and melt diamond. Which is the kind of amazing wrong-sounding you get when you adventure into physical realms beyond the calm, damp, and miniscule speck of reality which supports human bodies. You turn diamonds into Dali paintings.

Anyone can create high temperatures by adding Amperes – people with Christmas lights and a deeply misplaced sense of achievement learn that every year – but the Sandia system is piling power against the physical limitations of reality itself. Add enough energy to anything and it isn’t there anymore. The Z Machine is built to pour power into things without melting itself in the process. It’s so far beyond anything we normally understand about machines, it uses water lines to transmit power, and lightning bolts mean it’s working properly.

It’s pure plasmapunk, vast energies barely but definitely channeled by our brilliance.

Checking one of the 36 warp cores they apparently stole from the Enterprise

Checking one of the 36 warp cores they apparently stole from the Enterprise

Science-fiction is all about people and how they react to revolutionary advances. A common metric for the quality of these stories is how well developed those advances are. Science fact develops them as well as they can be – in fact, they only can be because science develops them – and how we react becomes the science-fiction story. Real science uses the world as a narrative. Society is an analog computer calculating stories in response to the ideas injected by the inventors. And the equipment looks every micrometer the part of a machine to change the world.

This is what they look like before the install the restraints and the British secret agent

This is what they look like before the install the transmission lines, target core, restraints, and British secret agent

(All images from sandia.gov)

For more glorious technojoy, behold 9 Badass Spacecraft Landings and 9 Amazing Laser Systems.

Advertisements

Plasmapunk Is Steampunk For Real

Plasma physics is steampunk for this century. An old fashion has come back  again and this time it’s science as well as style, a fusion fashion. We are genuinely building the future with the same aesthetic that drove locomotives across the continents. Clanking constructions of metal controlled by the most delicate intricacies of intellect, titanic forces tamed by humanity to tame the globe for us in turn. And this time the globe is no mere Earth but Sol itself. The technology is even based on the transformative power of a newly-harnessed state of matter. Instead of using fire to boil water, our tanks are filled with something hotter than the flame itself.

See the huge sections being lowered in. Something so massive hasn’t been created by such intelligence since the Incredible Hulk, and this will be more powerful

Huge sections of the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator being lowered into place. Something so massive hasn’t been created by such intelligence since the Incredible Hulk, and this will be more powerful.

Steampunk is tremendous fun, but we don’t no longer need to play make-believe in the mud of the past. Plasmapunk offers the same glories without the downsides. We don’t have to overlook some seriously suspect aspects of the period, or ignore incredible advances in the technology we all love. Vacuum tubes might look cool, but transistors are man-made miracles, and this way we get to connect our most advanced computers to the winding coils and glassed chambers of sparks and plasma.

A fusion reactor built by the brilliant William Jack.

A fusion reactor built by the clearly brilliant William Jack

The best part about plasmapunk is that it’s real. Every socket and shining rivet has to be exactly where it is, every conduit and inspection hatch designed to do something, and that incarnated intelligence shines through every aspect of the structure even before you ignite the starstuff inside.

A plasma chamber with all the gleaming bolts and piping a steampunk could ever need. (University of Iowa)

A plasma chamber with all the gleaming bolts and piping a steampunk could ever need. (University of Iowa)

In plasmapunk you don’t have anyone gluing a bunch of gears to leather boots and claiming it looks cool, when that’s more agonizing to the mechanically-minded than building a machine to scrape the same brass cog-teeth down a blackboard because at least then they’d be used for doing something. Punk has never meant copying what went before, or trying to just look the part. It means forging a new identity against the old system. And plasma power sources are going to break the world as we know it right open. Fusion energy doesn’t just mean cheaper electricity in the same way the steam engine didn’t just mean saving on horse feed.

We have countless subcultures dedicated to the past, re-enacting the old, and rebuilding the ancient using improved parts and digital cameras and the ability to stop for lager and chocolate biscuits instead of being stabbed to death in a fields. Pop-cultural hordes based on cartoons, comic books, and something called a Bieber. Now imagine an identity forged from the future being built right now. Because science is already there.

The Wendelstein 7-X Stellarator

The Wendelstein 7-X stellarator is the coolest name ever made. And I mean we made that thing for real. It’s proof that the most amazing terms have always been in the science, not the –fiction. It’s so gloriously impressive I don’t need to worry about whether my firstborn will be a boy or a girl: either way they’re set, and are going to have the most impressive business cards in history.

The Wendelstein 7-X

The Wendelstein 7-X stellarator

The Wendelstein 7-X stellarator sounds like something Marvin the Martian would use to destroy Daffy Duck, along with the entire planet responsible for such a violent nudist. The stellarator does exactly what the name says, and what that name says is that we are gods. The latin suffix “tor” forms an agent noun, something which performs the action of the base word. A motor performs the action of moving you, an accelerator performs the action of accelerating you, and a stellarator performs the action of being a star.

Plasma in Japan’s gloriously literal Large Helical Device, a superconducting stellarator

Plasma in Japan’s gloriously literal Large Helical Device, a superconducting stellarator

The Sun is a gravity-powered fusion reactor, the power plant for all life on Earth. We don’t have the three hundred thousand Earths we’d need to build another Sun, but here’s the thing: gravity is the weakest force in the universe. Electromagnetism is a hundred thousand million billion quintillion times stronger. Which means we can start our own reactions without gaining nearly as much weight.

The key to electromagnetic fusion is the toroid (aka the donut). We zap the gas up to fusion temperatures with electric currents and electromagnetic radiation and hold it in place with magnetic fields instead of a gravitational one. The twisting Wendelstein, which is even more powerful than the wrestling move it sounds like, comes from the need to confine all the particles equally. In a regular donut shape gas at the inner edge feels feel stronger forces than gas on the outer edge, leading to leakage, so the torus twists to pass the circulating plasma back and forth between the inner and outer edges, averaging out the forces.

Above: Theory Below: Practice

Above: Theory
Below: Practice

The result looks like someone started building a Mobius strip and couldn’t stop until they’d included everything humanity had ever learned about science. Which is almost exactly the case.

The result looks like someone started building a Mobius strip and couldn’t stop until they’d included everything humanity had ever learned about science. Which is almost exactly the case.

An array of master-crafted metal mobiii

An array of master-crafted metal mobiii

The result is a masterpiece of modern science, combining our most advanced theories with our most impressive technologies. Every curve calculated and crafted, every addition the result of lifetimes of work. It’s an installation in every sense of the word: something put together by humans, a location designed to perform a task, and an artwork intended to change life for everyone exposed to its effects.

You also end up with people building themselves into techno-Dali paintings.

You also end up with people building themselves into techno-Dali.

It’s beautiful, and I realized: plasma physics is steampunk for this century. Continued in “Plasmapunk Is Steampunk For Real“.