Europe's New X-Ray Laser Could Explain the Mysteries of Earth's Magnetic Field

Whether peering towards the center of the Earth or searching for Jupiter's "warm dense matter," our understanding of a planet's core remains largely theoretical. Europe's newest new laser array, however, can recreate those same intense conditions here on the surface—using diamond anvils and X-ray beams.

The center of the Earth is thought to be a solid Iron-Nickel alloy compressed at 3,600,000 atmospheres and heated to over 5000 degrees Celsius—equal to that of the surface of the Sun. And, given that, humanity has had such difficulty even breaking through our relatively soft and thin crust, the prospects of our ever actually boring 2500 kilometers to center of the planet is iffy at best—and our odds are even worse for finding the warm gooey center of Jupiter. So how do we study the state of matter and their interactions with each other under these conditions? Very quickly and with the newly-upgraded ID24 laser at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France.

The ID24 compresses a microscopic sample of material to 3 Mega bar—roughly 3 million atmospheres—between two diamond anvil cells, then fires Pulsed laser beams—one-ten-millionth of a meter wide and a microsecond second long—from either side to heat the sample to over 10,000 degrees, while an X-ray beam probes the states of matter at these conditions. Since these conditions only last an instant, ID24 employs Germanium micro-strip detectors which record up to a million sequential readings per second. A powerful infrared spectrometer aids in the study of chemical reactions under these conditions.

The ID24 uses a technique known as X-ray absorption spectroscopy which determines the local geometric and electronic structure of matter by identifying which elements are present given their rates of absorbing X-rays. By generating data like this in the lab, researchers will be able to build large-scale digital models of these processes. We may even be able to one day predict the strength and intensity of changes to the Earth's magnetic field without—you know—having to dig through the Land of the Lost.

The first of the ESRF's 180 million Euro, eight-beamline systems upgrade ID24 is able to use sample sizes twenty times smaller—while providing 1000 times better resolution—than previous systems. As Sakura Pascarelli, a leading researcher working on the ID24, explains. "Scientists can use several other synchrotrons notably in Japan and the U.S for fast X-ray absorption spectroscopy, but it is the microsecond time resolution for single shot acquisition coupled to the micrometer sized spot that makes ID24 unique worldwide."

The ID24 is still in testing and is expected to enter service in May 2012.

[ESRF - Wired]

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