WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Being able to simulate immensely powerful and energetic explosions, from nuclear explosions to exploding stars, is more useful than you might think …
Z Machines are unique on Earth – they’re the only machines anywhere that can recreate the power output of an exploding Dwarf Star, or put another way the six times the amount of energy the whole world produces, in a lab. And in terms of weird technology they’re right up there with experiments that include building molecular black holes on Earth, creating the first magnetic wormholes, and figuring out how to move the entire universe using something called a Stellar Engine. These kind of machines also allow researchers to research the power and sustainability of nuclear weapons without actually having to use them which means the world’s nuclear powers can be safely assured their stockpiles will work if the ultimate deterrence fails.
And now they are the newest addition to the current US-China arms race after China announced it is building a device that’s equivalent to America’s Z Machine, a device that reproduces the conditions of a nuclear bomb but in the controlled safety of the laboratory. Except, naturally, China says that it’s machine will be bigger than America’s.
The Z Pulsed Power Facility “is the world’s most powerful and efficient laboratory radiation source,” according to the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico who own the world’s most powerful Z machine. “It uses high magnetic fields associated with high electrical currents to produce high temperatures, high pressures, and powerful X-rays for research in high energy density science.”
“The Z machine creates conditions found nowhere else on Earth,” Sandia claims.
But those conditions may soon be found in the city of Mianyang, in southwest China, where the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics develops nuclear weapons.
China’s Z machine is “designed to produce about 60 million joules of energy in an instant – roughly 22 times the 2.7 million joules generated at the Sandia facility,” according to the South China Morning Post. “It does this by firing powerful electrical pulses at a target about the size of a spool of thread consisting of hundreds of tungsten wires, each thinner than a human hair. When the pulses pass through the wires, the tungsten explodes, evaporates and creates a plasma with a magnetic field so strong that the exploded particles are forced inward. The particles collide, producing intense radiation – mostly X-rays – and creating conditions that more accurately reflect a real nuclear explosion.”
“With so much energy, we can heat a target to more than 100 million degrees Celsius,” boasted one Chinese nuclear physicist. “It will dwarf the machine in Sandia.”
Building facilities to develop better nuclear bombs comes as tensions are rising between the US and China. President Trump has threatened to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty between the US and Soviet Union. The treaty banned most medium and short range nuclear missiles. Trump accused Russia of violating the treaty by deploying new missiles, and Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to retaliate by building more nuclear weapons. These developments haven’t been lost on Beijing.
“China Youth Daily reported in May that the academy [of Engineering Physics] aimed to beat the US in nuclear weapon development,” noted the South China Morning Post. “’Must surpass the US’ has become a motto for scientists and engineers working in the top secret research facilities,” the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League said.
Even if China’s machine is bigger than America’s, as with so much of the nuclear arms race, it is not clear how much advantage Beijing would derive. The US has almost 7,000 nuclear warheads to destroy China and Russia as functioning societies and Russia has a similar number to return the favour to America. With an estimated 300 nuclear warheads, China’s arsenal is distinctly smaller, but not small enough that it couldn’t severely damage the US so the addition of a new powerful Z machine is significant news.