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

Research at CMAP will focus on understanding the physics and astrophysical implications of matter under pressures so high that the structure of individual atoms is disrupted.

“This is the first major initiative from NSF in the field of high energy density science,” says principal investigator Gilbert “Rip” Collins, 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 Rochester. “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.”

Impetus for the project is two-fold:

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, we 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. 

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.”

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 also contains cutting-edge educational and outreach efforts. “We’re going to bring our scientific results to people in a lot of innovative ways, including radio and web stories as well as video content,” says Adam Frank, Rochester professor of astrophysics and leader of outreach efforts. The educational outreach will focus on bringing high-energy-density science to students in a range of settings, from high schools to graduate schools. “This effort will use modern computational and educational tools that teachers and student will also be able to leverage in other disciplines,” says Pierre Gourdain, Rochester associate professor of physics and leader of educational efforts.