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Physics and Astronomy Studying materials under extreme conditions using shock waves

Theme: Phonons and Shockwaves

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Example Project: Studying materials under extreme conditions using shock waves

Impact laboratory at ISP

Faculty Mentor: James Hawreliak


Shock wave research is a multi-disciplinary field.  Typically, a material is rapidly compressed to extreme conditions by the near instantaneous application of a load causing it to undergo rapid pressurization and heating[1]. The most extreme thermodynamic conditions in a laboratory are created using shock waves with applications to condensed matter physics[2], astrophysics[3], material science, and chemistry. What makes these experiments challenging and exciting is they are destructive in nature, probing a single event with no recoverable material, lasting for a fraction of a microsecond, and require high fidelity measurements to be performed with picosecond (ps) resolution. The Institute for Shock Physics (ISP) at Washington State University (WSU) is nationally and internationally recognized as the academic leader in dynamic compression science[4].   The research performed at ISP focuses on understanding condensed matter phenomena like the atomic rearrangement that occurs during phase transitions and plastic deformation[5].

Project Description

The REU scholar and faculty mentor will work on a project using a laser to accelerate a thin aluminum foil to high velocities (~km/sec).  The laser rapidly heats the interface between a window and thin foil, generating hot, high-pressure plasma that launches the foil.  The REU scholar will learn how to assemble thin foil samples, class 4 laser safety, and how to perform time-resolved (ps resolution), single event experiments.  The expected outcome from the REU scholar’s experiments will be to quantify how the increase in mass of the foil (determined by the foil thickness) influences the foil velocity.


Undergraduate Research

Over the last 10 years the ISP has also offered a summer research experience for undergraduate students under the theme “Materials under Extreme Conditions”. Since 2009, 20 talented undergraduate students have participated in a multidisciplinary 9-week program culminating in an Undergraduate Research Symposium and poster presentation.


Representative projects included:

  • Using Laser Interferometry to Measure the Shock Wave Response of 1050 Aluminum
  • Experimental Study of the Mechanical Behavior of Magnesium Under Dynamic Loading Using Split Hopkinson Pressure Bar Technique
  • Direct Drive Laser Shockwave Measurements
  • High Pressure Stability of Para-nitroaniline: Role of Hydrogen Bonding


In addition, the ISP offers a week-long Dynamic Compression Summer School that includes lectures, discussion, and tours that introduce undergraduate students to the scientific fundamentals, broad scientific applications, and career opportunities within dynamic compression science.  In each of the first two years, the summer school has hosted 25 undergraduate participants.


In 2017, Dr. Hawreliak advised an undergraduate student in the Department of Physics for his   thesis project.  This student is now a staff member at the WSU-operated Dynamic Compression Sector located at the Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory.


  1. A.k.B. Zelʹdovich, Y.B. Zel’dovich, and Y.P. Raizer, Physics of shock waves and high-temperature hydrodynamic phenomena. 2002: Courier Dover Publications.
  2. Barker and R. Hollenbach, “Shock wave study of the α⇄ ε phase transition in iron”. Journal of Applied Physics. 45(11): p. 4872-4887, 1974.
  3. Knudson, M.D., et al., Probing the Interiors of the Ice Giants: Shock Compression of Water to 700 GPa and 3.8  g/cm^{3}. Physical Review Letters, 2012. 108(9).
  5. J. Turneaure, N. Sinclair, and Y.M. Gupta, “Real-Time Examination of Atomistic Mechanisms during Shock-Induced Structural Transformation in Silicon”. Phys Rev Lett. 117(4): p. 045502, 2016.