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Simulating Planetary Interiors? Hamburg Say: "Yes, We Can!"

Scientists at DESY have installed a giant press that can simulate the interior of planets and synthesise new materials

The Large Volume Press (LVP) can exert a force of up to 500 tons on each of its three axes. “This corresponds to 300,000 times atmospheric pressure or 900 kilometres below the Earth’s surface”, explains the DESY scientist in charge, Norimasa Nishiyama.

The World’s Largest Press At Any Synchrotron Light Source

The apparatus, measuring 4.5 metres in height and weighing 35 tonnes, can compress samples as large as one cubic centimetre, depending on the desired pressure. That is about the size of a standard die used in board games. “This makes our press the largest at any synchrotron light source in the world,” underlines Nishiyama. Researchers can use the bright X-ray light from DESY’s synchrotron light source PETRA III to peer inside samples under high pressure and investigate changes in their structure under these conditions. “We can not only compress the cubic volume homogeneously, we can also deform it,” says Nishiyama.

Additionally, samples can be heated to more than 2000 degrees Celsius. This opens the way to investigating many dynamic processes occurring inside rocky planets like the Earth. “For instance, we can simulate seismic activity and volcanism,” says Nishiyama. “With the press we can create artificial magma and watch it flow.”

In Focus: Super-Hard Materials

While other techniques like diamond anvil cells (DAC) can achieve higher pressures, the new installation can compress exceptionally large volumes. This is not only interesting for simulating dynamic processes in the Earth’s interior, but also for synthesising and studying super-hard materials that only form under high pressure.
“For instance artificial diamond or cubic boron nitride, which is the second hardest material in the world after diamond, or stishovite, which is the hardest oxide,” explains Nishiyama. These compounds are also interesting for industrial applications. “Many new superconductors can only be synthesised using this type of instrument,” says the physicist.

German Federal Ministry of Research Funds LVP Installation

The operation of the giant press will probably need some practice, as Nishiyama points out: “Nobody has tried to use such an instrument at a synchrotron. It is very unique, and it’s a challenge, too.”

The LVP installation is supported by the German Federal Ministry of Research BMBF (grant no. KEI0500009612) in the project “Aufbau einer experimentellen Station mit einer großvolumigen
Hochdruckapparatur an der Damping-Wiggler-Beamline des Deutschen Elektronen
Synchrotron DESY” (principal investigator Tomoo Katsura, University of Bayreuth).

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