UB scientist partners on $13 million effort to study matter at extreme pressures

UB’s Eva Zurek is a key member of the Center for Matter at Atomic Pressures, which is led by the University of Rochester

Release Date: August 13, 2020

Portrait of Eva Zurek.
“Most of the visible matter in the universe is subject to extreme conditions. The properties of matter at these conditions control the evolution of planets and stars, but until recently, it was not possible to perform experiments or computations studying this regime. ”
Eva Zurek, professor of chemistry
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo chemistry and physics researcher Eva Zurek is a key partner in the Center for Matter at Atomic Pressures (CMAP), a new effort led by the University of Rochester to study matter under extreme pressures.

CMAP — a $12.96 million National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Physics Frontier Center — is hosted at the University of Rochester and is a collaboration with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Princeton University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Davis; UB; and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The effort “explores matter at pressures strong enough to change the nature of atoms themselves,” according to a description of the center in the NSF’s award database. “Such conditions have not been explored or exploited on Earth, yet they dominate the interiors of planets and stars. To date, thousands of planets have been discovered, providing numerous possible platforms for life throughout the universe. To understand the origin, evolution, and nature of these planets, one has to understand properties of high energy density matter at and beyond atomic pressures.”

“This effort will help discover the nature of planets and stars throughout the universe, as well as the potential for new revolutionary states of matter here on Earth,” says principal investigator Gilbert “Rip” Collins, PhD, the Tracy/Hyde Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Physics and Astronomy, and associate director of science, technology and academics at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) at the University of Rochester.

“Most of the visible matter in the universe is subject to extreme conditions,” says Zurek, PhD, professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “The properties of matter at these conditions control the evolution of planets and stars, but until recently, it was not possible to perform experiments or computations studying this regime. Our work will do so, thereby helping to produce state-of-the-art next-generation planetary models.”

Zurek — an expert in theoretical chemistry and condensed matter physics — specializes in areas including high-pressure and computational chemistry. Among other contributions, her team will carry out calculations that will help researchers gain an understanding of the structure of planetary constituents — the compounds that make up planets — at extreme pressures and temperatures.

Physics Frontiers Centers are university-based centers funded by the NSF to enable transformational advances in the most promising research areas.

The impetus for CMAP is twofold:

  • First is a recent “paradigm shift in how we think about extreme states of matter,” Collins says. It was previously believed, for example, that materials subjected to very high pressure, atomic-scale pressure, would transition to simple densely packed metals. “However, recent theoretical and experimental results now suggest such extreme matter can become increasingly more complicated, with extraordinarily exotic properties,” Collins says. Aluminum, for example, may transform from a simple metal to a transparent insulator, and hydrogen from a gas into a superconducting superfluid.

  • Second is that thousands of planets, some of which may be platforms for life, have been discovered outside our solar system. To understand the nature of these massive bodies, scientists need to understand their deep interior states which are under the crushing forces of gravity.

CMAP will lead discoveries at the confluence of these two movements in science. The center will combine powerful lasers, pulsed-power, and X-ray beam technology with first-principles theory and astrophysical interpretation concentrating on four main areas of fundamental research:

  • How hydrogen and helium behave at extraordinary densities in the so-called “gas giant” planets, including Jupiter and Saturn in our own solar system. “This plays a key role in our understanding of how our solar system evolved,” Collins says. Zurek will be involved in this activity.

  • How other elements react at high densities, to understand the nature of terrestrial and water worlds in the universe, and how materials might be manipulated in laboratories on Earth to harness revolutionary properties. Zurek will be co-leading this activity.

  • The pathways of energy transport that enable the dramatic change in properties of material at high densities. This could shed light on topics ranging from the structure and evolution of planets and stars to refining inertial confinement fusion.

  • The direct astrophysical implications of extreme matter properties — linking laboratory exploration of matter at atomic pressure with state-of-the-art models of astrophysical objects to better understand astronomical observations.

CMAP will also include educational efforts that focus on bringing high energy density science to students in a range of settings, from high schools to graduate schools.

Co-principal investigators are Sara Seager at MIT, Adam Burrows at Princeton, Raymond Jeanloz at UC Berkeley, and Sarah Stewart at UC Davis.

Senior investigators include Zurek from UB; Burkhard Militzer from UC Berkeley; Thomas Duffy from Princeton; Jon Eggert, Rick Kraus, and Peter Celliers at Livermore National Laboratory; and Adam Frank, Pierre Gourdain, Eric Blackman, Ryan Rygg, Suxing Hu, Mohamed Zaghoo, Philip Nilson, Jessica Shang, Hussein Aluie and Miki Nakajima from the University of Rochester.

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University of Rochester:

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