The Physics
Two-Stage Gas Gun

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Two-Stage Gas Gun Facilities

Gas Gun
LLNL's two-stage light-gas gun was instrumental in the shock compression experiments that metallized hydrogen.
drawing of Gas Gun


How Our Gas Gun Works

Our shock compression studies use a 20-meter-long, two-stage light-gas gun built by General Motors in the mid-1960s for ballistic missile studies; the gun has been in operation at the Laboratory since 1972.

The gun consists of a first-stage breech containing up to 3.5 kilograms of gunpowder and a pump tube filled with 60 grams of hydrogen, helium, or nitrogen gas; and a second-stage evacuated barrel for guiding the high-velocity impactor to its target.

Hot gases from the burning gunpowder drive a heavy (4.5- to 6.8-kilograms) piston down the pump tube, compressing the gas. At sufficiently high pressures, the gas eventually breaks a rupture valve and enters the narrow barrel, propelling a 20-gram impactor housed in the barrel toward the target.

When the impactor hits the target, it produces a high-pressure shock wave. In a fraction of a microsecond, the shock wave reverberates through the target. Diagnostic equipment, triGasGunered by the initial wave, measures the properties of the shocked material inside the target during this extremely brief period.

Projectile velocity can range from 1 to 8 kilometers per second (up to 18,000 mph). The preferred velocity is achieved by selecting the appropriate type and amount of gunpowder, driving gas (hydrogen for velocities at or above 4 kilometers per second, helium and nitrogen for lower velocities), pressure required to open the rupture valve, diameter of the barrel, and the metal and mass of the impactor

The velocity of the shock wave, when combined with the initial conditions (impactor velocity, known densities, equation of state of the projectile and target materials) yields a precise measure of the pressure, density, and energy attained.


The gas gun permits us to fire hypervelocity projectiles into highly instrumented targets (Figure 1), shocking matter to extreme conditions for a millionth of a second or less. These experiments create pressures of a million-plus atmospheres, temperatures up to thousands of degrees depending upon the material being shocked, and densities several times that of a material's solid state.

In addition to hydrogen, we have performed shock compression experiments on other liquefied gases such as nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, carbon monoxide, deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen), helium, and argon, and on solids such as aluminum, copper, tantalum, and carbon (graphite). Data from such experiments are used to determine a material's equation of state (EOS expresses the relationship between pressure, density, and temperature), to validate theories, and to generate reliable computational models of a material's behavior under a wide range of thermodynamic variables.


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For further information contact:
William Nellis-- (925) 422-7200.

Physicist WILLIAM NELLIS joined the Laboratory in 1973. His specialty is the investigation of condensed matter both during and after high-pressure shock compression. The highlight of this work is the observation of the metallization of fluid hydrogen at 1.4 megabars pressure and nine-fold compression. He has delivered invited talks at 44 professional conferences since 1979 and is the author or co-author of more than 100 papers. A fellow of the American Physical Society's Division of Condensed Matter Physics, Nellis holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Iowa State University. He received his B.S. in physics from Loyola University of Chicago.


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