By Mark Brown, Wired UK
The very center of the Earth has been described as the “last white spot” on our globe: a mysterious super-hot chamber that we know surprisingly little about. An X-ray beamline at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France will, hopefully, unlock some of its secrets.
The X-ray beam, called ID24, attempts to reproduce some of those extreme conditions in the lab. Diamond anvil cells squeeze a material to intense pressures, and laser pulses heat it to unimaginable temperatures. The samples may be no bigger than a speck of dust and the heat may only be applied for microseconds, but it’s the closest approximation of the Earth’s center that we can get.
This will allow scientists in various fields to discover what happens when you heat iron to 10,000 degrees C, what happens when materials undergo a fast chemical reaction or at what temperature a mineral will melt in the interior of a planet. It will hopefully answer some burning questions that keep geologists up at night.
Cosmologists, too. That elusive “warm dense matter” may well live inside large planets like Jupiter, and we know even less about them. ID24 allows sample volumes 10,000 times smaller than those at the high power laser facilities to be studied, making such experiments possible.
The first tests of ID24 were completed this month, and testing will continue over the coming weeks. In May 2012, the beamline will be opened to researchers around the world to use for experiments. It is just the first of eight new beamlines to be built within the €180 million (£150 million) ESRF Upgrade Program.
Image: ESRF/B. Gorges [high-resolution version]