Big Complicated Machines

Big, Complicated Machines #11 – The Z Machine

The Z Machine in action

Good morning everyone.

Today I want to talk about one of my very favourite machines on the planet, the Z machine at Sandia National laboratories. The Z machine is the most powerful laboratory x-ray source on the planet and is primarily used for fusion research and testing our nuclear weapons stockpile by using simulations of conditions during nuclear explosions. At full power, the Z machine uses 26 million amps to reach peak x-ray emissions of 350 terawatts, and can produce temperatures at the target of over 3,600,000,000oF for a few billionths of a second. It is a most impressive device.

The image above is the famous “arcs ‘n sparks” photograph that was taken around 1996. You typically see it with articles about the Z machine, and for good reason – it’s really cool. The lightning is called ‘flashover’ and is caused by the huge EMP generated by the enormous amount of electricity being used during a shot. This is in spite of the insulation provided by over 500,000 gallons of transformer oil in the outer ring, and over 600,000 gallons of DI water in the inner ring. Yes, that’s correct: the machine is operated while under water (and oil). Divers in SCUBA gear make last minute adjustments prior to a shot before scrambling to the safety of a copper-lined concrete bunker next to the main chamber when the warning lights come on. It must be an interesting job for an engineer. The machine went through an upgrade from 2004-2007 that increased its power and performance and improved its turnaround time. It also improved its insulation characteristics to where flashovers like the one above no longer happen. Dang.

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