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Benjamin Roberts
Benjamin Roberts

The History and Future of Z-machine and Z-code

What You Need to Know About the Z Machine

The Z machine is a remarkable device that can generate extreme conditions of temperature, pressure, and radiation. It is used for various scientific research projects, such as studying nuclear weapons, fusion energy, and materials science. But what exactly is the Z machine, how does it work, and what are its challenges and future prospects? In this article, we will answer these questions and more.




The Z machine was developed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1985. It was originally called the PBFA-II (Particle Beam Fusion Accelerator II) and was designed to test materials in conditions similar to those produced by a nuclear explosion. The name "Z" comes from the term "Z-pinch", which refers to the process of compressing a plasma tube with a strong magnetic field. The Z-pinch technique was first studied in the 1960s as part of the weapons program, but later it was found to have potential for fusion research as well.

Over the years, the Z machine has undergone several upgrades and modifications to increase its power and efficiency. It can now produce currents of about 26 million amps, peak X-ray emissions of 350 terawatts, and an X-ray output of 2.7 megajoules. These are some of the highest values ever achieved in a laboratory setting. The Z machine can create conditions that are found nowhere else on Earth, such as temperatures of over 100 million degrees Celsius and pressures of over 10 million atmospheres.


The Z machine has a wide range of scientific applications, mainly in the fields of high energy density physics and inertial confinement fusion. Some of its main purposes are:

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  • Weapons research: The Z machine can simulate the effects of nuclear detonations and help validate physics models and computer simulations. This is crucial for Sandia's mission to ensure the reliability and safety of the US nuclear stockpile.

  • Fusion research: The Z machine can achieve fusion reactions by heating and compressing hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) inside a metal capsule. Fusion is the process by which two atomic nuclei are joined together, releasing enormous amounts of energy. Fusion has long been pursued as a potential source of clean and abundant energy, but it is very difficult to achieve and sustain in a controlled manner.

  • Materials science: The Z machine can provide valuable information about how materials behave under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure. This can help develop new materials with improved properties and performance for various applications.


The Z machine is not without its challenges and risks. Some of them are:

  • Technical difficulties: The Z machine is a complex and delicate system that requires careful maintenance and calibration. It can only fire once a day, due to the amount of energy it consumes and the damage it causes to its components. Each shot vaporizes about 10 kilograms of metal hardware, leaving behind a crater a foot wide.

  • Safety issues: The Z machine involves high voltages, currents, magnetic fields, radiation, and explosives. These pose potential hazards to the operators and the environment. Moreover, the use of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, adds another layer of risk. Tritium is scarce, expensive, and dangerous to handle. It can also contaminate surfaces and leak into groundwater if not properly contained.

  • Scientific uncertainties: The Z machine produces data that are difficult to interpret and verify. The experiments are often affected by instabilities, impurities, and uncertainties in measurements. The results are also hard to compare with other fusion devices, such as lasers or tokamaks, which use different methods and parameters.


The Z machine has a promising future as a tool for scientific discovery and innovation. Some of its future goals and projects are:

  • Improving fusion performance: The Z machine aims to achieve higher temperatures, pressures, and fusion yields by using more powerful magnets, better diagnostics, and advanced target designs. One of the main challenges is to overcome the energy loss caused by radiation and heat conduction. Another challenge is to increase the shot repetition rate and the reliability of the system.

  • Exploring new physics regimes: The Z machine can create conditions that are beyond the reach of other experimental facilities, such as ultra-high magnetic fields, relativistic plasmas, and quantum electrodynamics effects. These can open up new possibilities for understanding fundamental physics and astrophysics phenomena, such as neutron stars, black holes, and gamma-ray bursts.

  • Developing new applications: The Z machine can also be used for other purposes besides weapons and fusion research, such as medical imaging, radiation therapy, and space propulsion. For example, the Z machine can produce intense X-rays that can penetrate deep into materials and reveal their internal structure. This can help diagnose diseases, detect defects, and improve quality control.


The Z machine is a remarkable device that can generate extreme conditions of temperature, pressure, and radiation. It is used for various scientific research projects, such as studying nuclear weapons, fusion energy, and materials science. It has a rich history, a wide range of applications, and a promising future. However, it also faces many challenges and risks that require careful attention and management. The Z machine is not only a powerful tool, but also a fascinating subject of curiosity and wonder.


What is the difference between the Z machine and a nuclear reactor?

A nuclear reactor is a device that uses fission reactions to produce energy. Fission is the process by which a heavy atomic nucleus splits into two or more lighter nuclei, releasing energy and neutrons. A nuclear reactor uses a chain reaction of fission events to sustain a steady output of heat and electricity.

The Z machine is a device that uses fusion reactions to produce energy. Fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei are joined together, releasing energy and particles. The Z machine uses a pulsed power technique to create a brief burst of fusion events in a metal capsule.

How much does the Z machine cost?

The Z machine cost about $90 million to build in 1985. Since then, it has received several upgrades and modifications that have increased its cost to over $200 million. The annual operating budget of the Z machine is about $60 million.

How big is the Z machine?

The Z machine occupies an area of about 10,000 square feet in a building at Sandia National Laboratories. It consists of several components, such as capacitors, switches, cables, electrodes, vacuum chambers, diagnostics, and control systems. The main part of the Z machine is the central cylindrical chamber that houses the metal capsule where the fusion reactions take place. The chamber has a diameter of about 10 feet and a height of about 12 feet.

What are the environmental impacts of the Z machine?

The Z machine has some environmental impacts that need to be monitored and mitigated. Some of them are:

  • Energy consumption: The Z machine consumes a large amount of electricity for each shot. It draws power from the local grid for about 10 minutes before each shot, storing it in capacitors. Then it releases it in a fraction of a second, creating a huge surge of current. This can cause fluctuations in the voltage and frequency of the grid, affecting other users and devices.

Radiation emission: The Z machine emits various types o


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