A new lens allows researchers to watch shock waves travel through silicon

Researchers used a unique approach to learn more about what happens to silicon under intense pressure.

Elasticity, the ability of an object to bounce back to its original shape, is a universal property in solid materials. But when pushed too far, materials change in unrecoverable ways: Rubber bands snap in half, metal frames bend or melt and phone screens shatter.

For instance, when silicon, an element abundant in the Earth’s crust, is subjected to extreme heat and pressure, an initial “elastic” shock wave travels through the material, leaving it unchanged, followed by an “inelastic” shock wave that irreversibly transforms the structure of the material.

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Image: After blasting silicon with intense laser pulses at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source, researchers saw an unexpected shock wave appear in the material before its structure was irreversibly changed.
Credit: Gregory Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory