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Pinch (plasma physics)


A pinch is the compression of an electrically conducting filament by magnetic forces. The conductor is usually a plasma, but could also be a solid or liquid metal. In a z-pinch, the current is axial (in the z direction in a cylindrical coordinate system) and the magnetic field azimuthal; in a theta-pinch, the current is azimuthal (in the theta direction in cylindrical coordinates) and the magnetic field is axial. The phenomenon may also be referred to as a "Bennett pinch"[1] (after Willard Harrison Bennett), "electromagnetic pinch"[2], "magnetic pinch"[3], "pinch effect"[4] or "plasma pinch".[5]

Pinches occur naturally in electrical discharges such as lightning bolts[6], the aurora[7], current sheets[8], and solar flares[9]. They are also produced in the laboratory, primarily for research into fusion power, but also by hobbyists.


Pinch production and types

  Pinches are created in the laboratory in equipment related to nuclear fusion, such as the Z-pinch machine and high-energy physics, such as the dense plasma focus. Pinches may also become unstable[11], and generate radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, including radio waves, x-rays[12] and gamma rays[13], and also neutrons[14] and synchrotron radiation[15]. Types of pinches, that may differ in geometry and operating forces[16], include the Cylindrical pinch, Inverse pinch, Orthogonal pinch effect, Reversed field pinch, Sheet pinch, Screw pinch[17] (also called stabalized z-pinch, or θ-z pinch)[18], Theta pinch (or thetatron[19]), Toroidal pinch, Ware pinch [20] and Z-pinch.

Pinches are used to generate X-rays, and the intense magnetic fields generated are used in electromagnetic forming of metals (they have been demonstrated in crushing aluminium soft drinks cans[21]). They have applications to particle beams[22] including particle beam weapons[23], and astrophysics[24].


  The first creation of a z-pinch in the laboratory may have occurred in 1790 in Holland when Martinus van Marum created an explosion by discharging 100 Leyden jars into a wire[26]. The phenomenon was not understood until 1905, when Pollock and Barraclough[10] investigated a compressed and distorted length of copper tube from a lightning rod after it had been struck by lightning. Their analysis showed that the forces due to the interaction of the large current flow with its own magnetic field could have caused the compression and distortion.[27] A similar, and apparently independent, theoretical analysis of the pinch effect in liquid metals was published by Northrupp in 1907.[28]. The next major development was the publication in 1934 of an analysis of the radial pressure balance in a static z-pinch by Bennett[29] (See the following section for details.)

Thereafter, the experimental and theoretical progress on pinches was driven by fusion power research. In their article on the "Wire-array z-pinch: a powerful x-ray source for ICF", M G Haines et al, wrote on the "Early history of z-pinches"[30]:

    In 1946 Thompson and Blackman [43] submitted a patent for a fusion reactor based on a toroidal z-pinch [43][31] with an additional vertical magnetic field. But in 1954 Kruskal and Schwarzschild [44][32] published their theory of MHD instabilities in a z-pinch. In 1956 Kurchatov gave his famous Harwell lecture showing nonthermal neutrons and the presence of m = 0 and m = 1 instabilities in a deuterium pinch [45][33]. In 1957 Pease [46][34] and Braginskii [47][35] independently predicted radiative collapse in a z-pinch under pressure balance when in hydrogen the current exceeds 1.4 MA. (The viscous rather than resistive dissipation of magnetic energy discussed above and in [32][36] would however prevent radiative collapse). Lastly, at Imperial College in 1960, led by R Latham, the Rayleigh–Taylor (RT) instability was shown, and its growth rate measured in a dynamic z-pinch [48][37]."


One Dimensional configurations

There are three analytic one dimensional configurations generally studied in plasma physics. These are the θ-pinch, the Z-pinch, and the Screw Pinch. All of the classic one dimensional pinches are cylindrically shaped. Symmetry is assumed in the axial (z) direction and in the azimuthal (θ) direction. It is traditional to name a one-dimensional pinch after the direction in which the current travels.

The θ-pinch


The θ-pinch has a magnetic field traveling in the z direction. Using Ampère's law (discarding the displacement term)

\nabla \times \vec{B} = \mu_0 \vec{J}

\vec{B} = B_{z}(r)\hat{z}

\mu_{0} \vec{J} = \frac{d}{d \theta}B_z \hat{r} - \frac{d}{dr}B_z  \hat{\theta}

Since B is only a function of r we can simplify this to

\mu_0 \vec{J} = -\frac{d}{dr}B_z \hat{\theta}

So J points in the θ direction. θ-pinches tend to be resistant to plasma instabilities. This is due in part to the frozen in flux theorem, which is beyond the scope of this article.

The Z-Pinch


The Z-Pinch has a magnetic field in the θ direction. Again, by electrostatic Ampere's Law

\nabla \times \vec{B} = \mu_0 \vec{J}

\vec{B} = B_{\theta}(r)\hat{\theta}

\mu_{0} \vec{J} = \frac{d}{dr}B_{\theta} \hat{z} - \frac{d}{dz}B_{\theta}  \hat{r} = \frac{d}{dr}B_{\theta} \hat{z}

So J points in the z direction. Since particles in a plasma basically follow magnetic field lines, Z-pinches lead them around in circles. Therefore, they tend to have excellent confinement properties.

The Screw Pinch The Screw pinch is an effort to combine the stability aspects of the θ-pinch and the confinement aspects of the Z-pinch. Referring once again to Ampere's Law

\nabla \times \vec{B} = \mu_0 \vec{J}

But this time, the B field has a θ component and a z component

\vec{B} = B_{\theta}(r)\hat{\theta} + B_z (r) \hat{z}

\mu_{0} \vec{J} = \frac{1}{r}\frac{d}{dr}(r B_{\theta}) \hat{z} - \frac{d}{dr}B_{z}  \hat{\theta}

So this time J has a component in the z direction and a component in the θ direction.

Two Dimensional Equilibria


A common problem with one-dimensional equilibria based machines is end losses. As mentioned above, most of the motion of particles in a plasma is directed along the magnetic field. With the θ-pinch and the screw-pinch, this leads particles to the end of the machine very quickly (as the particles are typically moving quite fast). Additionally, the Z-pinch has major stability problems. Though particles can be reflected to some extent with magnetic mirrors, even these allow many particles to pass. The most common method of mitigating this effect is to bend the cylinder around into a torus. Unfortunately this breaks θ symmetry, as paths on the inner portion (inboard side) of the torus are shorter than similar paths on the outer portion (outboard side). Thus, a new theory is needed. This gives rise to the famous Grad-Shafranov equation.

The one dimensional equilibria provide the inspiration for some of the toroidal configurations. An example of this is the ZETA device at Culham England (which also operated as a Reversed Field Pinch). The most well recognized of these devices is the toroidal version of the screw pinch, the Tokamak.

Numerical solutions to the Grad-Shafranov equation have also yielded some equilibria, most notably that of the Reversed Field Pinch.

Three Dimensional Equilibria

There does not exist a coherent analytical theory for three-dimensional equilibria. The general approach to finding three dimensional equilibria is to solve the vacuum ideal MHD equations. Numerical solutions have yielded designs for stellarators. Some machines take advantage of simplification techniques such as helical symmetry (for example University of Wisconsin's Helically Symmetric eXperiment).

Formal treatment


The Bennett Relation

Consider a cylindrical column of fully ionized plasma, with an axial electric field, producing an axial current density, j, and associated azimuthal magnetic field, B. As the current flows through its own magnetic field, a pinch is generated with an inward radial force density of j x B. In a steady state with forces balancing:

p = ∇(pe + pi) = j x Β

where ∇p is the magnetic pressure gradient, pe and pi is the electron and ion pressures. Then using Maxwell's equation ∇ x B = μ0 j and the ideal gas law p = N k T, we derive:

2 N k(T_e + T_i) = \frac{{\mu_0}} {4 \pi} I^2 (The Bennett Relation)

where N is the number of electrons per unit length along the axis, Te and Ti are the electron and ion temperatures, I is the total beam current, and k is the Boltzmann constant.

The Generalized Bennett Relation

  The Generalized Bennett Relation considers a current-carrying magnetic-field-aligned cylindrical plasma pinch undergoing rotation at angular frequency ω. Along the axis of the plasma cylinder flows a current density jz, resulting in a toroidal magnetίc field Βφ. Originally derived by Witalis, [40] the Generalized Bennett Relation results in [41]:

\frac{1}{4} \frac{\partial^2 J_0}{\partial t^2}  = W_{\perp k i n} + \Delta W_{E_z} + \Delta W_{B_z} + \Delta W_k - \frac{{\mu_0}} {8 \pi} I^2 (a)

.\qquad \qquad - \frac{1}{2}G\overline{m}^2 N^2 (a) + \frac{1}{2}\pi a^2 \epsilon_0 \left(E_r^2 (a) - E_\phi^2 (a)  \right )

  • where a current-carrying, magnetic-field-aligned cylindrical plasma has a radius a,
  • J0 is the total moment of inertia with respect to the z axis,
  • W⊥kin is the kinetic energy per unit length due to beam motion transverse to the beam axis
  • WBz is the self-consistent Bz energy per unit length
  • WEz is the self-consistent Ez energy per unit length
  • Wk is thermokinetic energy per unit length
  • I(a) is the axial current inside the radius a (r in diagram)
  • N(a) is the total number of particles per unit length
  • Er is the radial electric field
  • Eφ is the rotational electric field

The positive terms in the equation are expansional forces while the negative terms represent beam compressional forces.

The Carlqvist Relation

The Carlqvist Relation, published by Per Carlqvist in 1988[42], is a specialization of the Generalized Bennett Relation (above), for the case that the kinetic pressure is much smaller at the border of the pinch than in the inner parts. It takes the form

\frac{{\mu_0}} {8 \pi} I^2 (a) +\frac{1}{2}G\overline{m}^2 N^2 (a) =  \Delta W_{B_z} + \Delta W_k

and is applicable to many space plasmas.


The Carlqvist Relation can be illustrated (see right), showing the total current (I) versus the number of particles per unit length (N) in a Bennett pinch. The chart illustrates four physically distinct regions. The plasma temperature is quite cold (Ti = Te = Tn = 20 K), containing mainly hydrogen with a mean particle mass 3×10-27 kg. The thermokinetic energy Wk >> π a2 pk(a). The curves, ΔWBz show different amounts of excess magnetic energy per unit length due to the axial magnetic field Bz. The plasma is assumed to be non-rotational, and the kinetic pressure at the edges is much smaller than inside.

Chart regions: (a) In the top-left region, the pinching force dominates. (b) Towards the bottom, outward kinetic pressures balance inwards magnetic pressure, and the total pressure is constant. (c) To the right of the vertical line ΔWBz=0, the magnetic pressures balances the gravitational pressure, and the pinching force is negligible. (d) To the left of the sloping curve ΔWBz=0, the gravitational force is negligible. Note that the chart shows a special case of the Carlqvist relation, and if it is replaced by the more general Bennett relation, then the designated regions of the chart are not valid.

Carlqvist further notes that by using the relations above, and a derivative, it is possible to describe the Bennett pinch, the Jean's criterion (for gravitational instability [43], in one and two dimensions), force-free magnetic fields, gravitationally balanced magnetic pressures, and continuous transitions between these states.

Crushing cans with the pinch effect


Many high-voltage electronics enthusiasts make their own devices using pulsed power techniques to produce a theta pinch capable of crushing an aluminium soft drink can by pressure of strong magnetic field. (Warning! High-voltage electric shocks may be lethal).

An electromagnetic aluminium can crusher consists of four main components (1) A high voltage DC power supply which provides a source of electrical energy (2) A large energy discharge capacitor to accumulate the electrical energy (3) A high voltage switch or spark gap and (4) A robust coil (capable of surviving high magnetic pressure) through which the stored electrical energy can be quickly discharged in order to generate a correspondingly strong pinching magnetic field (see diagram below).


In practice, such a device is somewhat more sophisticated than the schematic diagram suggests, including electrical components that control the current in order to maximize the resulting pinch, and to ensure that the device works safely. For more details, see the notes [44].

Sam Barros's can crusher cost about $500, and uses a large SCR and a 900 Volt capacitor bank storing about 3000 Joules of energy. For a very short time, it generates a magnetic field B~5T (250,000 times the strength of the Earth's magnetic field) which has magnetic pressure P ~ 100 atm. Rate of energy conversion (from electric into magnetic and back) in this device is about 22 megawatts. [45]

(Warning! High-voltage electric shocks may be lethal. Do not attempt to build such a device without proper training and precautions.).


A fictionalized pinch-generating device was used in Ocean's Eleven, where it was used to disrupt Las Vegas's power grid just long enough for the characters to begin their heist.[46]


  1. ^ See for example, Buneman, O., "The Bennett Pinch" (1961) Plasma Physics, Edited by James E. Drummond. LOC 60-12766. Publ. McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, 1961, p.202
  2. ^ Lee, S., "Energy balance and the radius of electromagnetically pinched plasma columns" (1983) Plasma Physics, Volume 25, Issue 5, pp. 571-576 (1983).
  3. ^ Schmidt, Helmut, "Formation of a Magnetic Pinch in InSb and the Possibility of Population Inversion in the Pinch" (1966) Physical Review, vol. 149, Issue 2, pp. 564-573
  4. ^ Severnyi, A. B., "On the Appearance of Cosmics Rays in the Pinch Effect in Solar Flares" (1959) Soviet Astronomy, Vol. 3, p.887
  5. ^ Zueva, N. M.; Solov'ev, L. S.; Morozov, A. I. "Nonlinear instability of plasma pinches" (1976) Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics Letters, Vol. 23, p.256
  6. ^ Rai, J.; Singh, A. K.; Saha, S. K, "Magnetic field within the return stroke channel of lightning" (1973) Indian Journal of Radio and Space Physics, vol. 2, Dec. 1973, p. 240-242.
  7. ^ Galperin, Iu. I.; Zelenyi, L. M.; Kuznetsova, M. M. "Pinching of field-aligned currents as a possible mechanism for the formation of raylike auroral forms" (1986) Kosmicheskie Issledovaniia (ISSN 0023-4206), vol. 24, Nov.-Dec. 1986, p. 865-874. In Russian.
  8. ^ Syrovatskii, S. I. "Pinch sheets and reconnection in astrophysics" (1981) In Annual review of astronomy and astrophysics. Volume 19. (A82-11551 02-90) Palo Alto, CA, Annual Reviews, Inc., 1981, p. 163-229
  9. ^ Airapetyan, V. S.; Vikhrev, V. V.; Ivanov, V. V.; Rozanova, G. A. "Pinch Mechanism of Energy Release of Stellar Flares" (1990) Astrophsyics (Tr. Astrofizika) v.32 No.3 Nov. p.230 1990
  10. ^ a b Pollock J A and Barraclough S, 1905 Proc. R. Soc. New South Wales 39 131
  11. ^ Hardee, P. E., "and pinching instability of supersonic expanding jets in extragalactic radio sources" (1982) Astrophysical Journal, Part 1, vol. 257, June 15, 1982, p. 509-526
  12. ^ Pereira, N. R., et al, "[X rays from z-pinches on relativistic electron-beam generators]" (1988) Journal of Applied Physics (ISSN 0021-8979), vol. 64, Aug. 1, 1988, p. R1-R27
  13. ^ Wu, Mei; Chen, Li; Li, Ti-Pei, "Polarization in Gamma-Ray Bursts Produced by Pinch Discharge" (2005) Chinese Journal of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Vol. 5, p. 57-64
  14. ^ Anderson, Oscar A., et al, "Neutron Production in Linear Deuterium Pinches" (1958) Physical Review, vol. 110, Issue 6, pp. 1375-1387
  15. ^ Peratt, A.L., "Synchrotron radiation from pinched particle beams", (1998) Plasma Physics: VII Lawpp 97: Proceedings of the 1997 Latin American Workshop on Plasma Physics, Edited by Pablo Martin, Julio Puerta, Pablo Martmn, with reference to Meierovich, B. E., "Electromagnetic collapse. Problems of stability, emission of radiation and evolution of a dense pinch" (1984) Physics Reports, Volume 104, Issue 5, p. 259-346.
  16. ^ Carlqvist, Per, "Cosmic electric currents and the generalized Bennett relation" (1988) Astrophysics and Space Science (ISSN 0004-640X), vol. 144, no. 1-2, May 1988, p. 73-84
  17. ^ Srivastava, K. M.; Vyas, D. N., "Non-linear analysis of the stability of the screw pinch", (1982) Astrophysics and Space Science, vol. 86, no. 1, Aug. 1982, p. 71-89
  18. ^ See "[ MHD Equilibria" in Introduction to Plasma Physics by I.H.Hutchinson (2001)
  19. ^ See Dictionary of Material Science and High Energy Physics p.315 ISBN 0-8493-2889-6
  20. ^ Helander, P. et al "The effect of non-inductive current drive on tokamak transport" (2005) Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, Volume 47, Issue 12B, pp. B151-B163
  21. ^ For example, see "Electromagnetic Crusher"
  22. ^ Ryutov, D. D.; Derzon, M. S.; Matzen, M. K, "The physics of fast Z pinches" (2000) Reviews of Modern Physics, vol. 72, Issue 1, pp. 167-223
  23. ^ Andre Gsponer, "Physics of high-intensity high-energy particle beam propagation in open air and outer-space plasmas" (2004)
  24. ^ Peratt, Anthony L., "The role of particle beams and electrical currents in the plasma universe" (1988) Laser and Particle Beams (ISSN 0263-0346), vol. 6, Aug. 1988, p. 471-491.
  25. ^ See also the IEEE History Center, "Evolution of the IEEE Logo" March 1963; see also the comments in "Laboratory Astrophysics"
  26. ^ van Marum M 1790 Proc. 4th Int. Conf. on Dense Z-Pinches (Vancouver 1997) (Am. Inst. Phys. Woodbury, New York, 1997) Frontispiece and p ii
  27. ^ R. S. Pease, "The Electromagnetic Pinch: From Pollock to the Joint European Torus", "Pollock Memorial Lecture for 1984 delivered at the University of Sydney, 28 November, 1984": This review of the electromagnetic pinch starts with an exhibit taken from Pollock's work, carefully preserved and drawn to attention of modern research by Professor C. Watson-Munro. It is a compressed and distorted length of copper tube originally part of the lightning conductor on the Hartley Vale kerosene refinery in New South Wales. It was known to have been struck by lightning. Pollock and Barraclough (1905) from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Sydney University carried out an analysis to see whether or not the compression could have arisen from the flow of electric current. They concluded that the compressive forces, due to the interaction of the large current flow with its own magnetic field could have been responsible for the compression and distortion. As far as I know, this is the first identified piece of observational data on the electromagnetic pinch; and the first theoretical discussion of the effect.
  28. ^ Northrupp E F 1907 "Some Newly Observed Manifestations of Forces in the Interior of an Electric Conductor" (1907) Phys. Rev. 24 474. He wrote: "Some months ago, my friend, Carl Hering, described to me a surprising and apparently new phenomenon which he had observed. He found, in passing a relatively large alternating current through a non-electrolytic, liquid conductor contained in a trough, that the liquid contracted in cross-section and flowed up hill lengthwise of the trough... Mr. Hering suggested the idea that this contraction was probably due to the elastic action of the lines of magnetic force which encircle the conductor... As the action of the forces on the conductor is to squeeze or pinch it, he jocosely called it the 'pinch phenomenon'.
  29. ^ W.H.Bennett, "Magnetically Self-Focussing Streams", Phys. Rev. 45 890 (1934)
  30. ^ M G Haines, T W L Sanford and V P Smirnov, "Wire-array z-pinch: a powerful x-ray source for ICF" (2005) Plasma Phys. Control. Fusion 47 B1-B11 (online in full, click PDF).
  31. ^ Thompson G P and Blackman M 1946 British Patent 817681. Haines M G 1996 "Historical Perspective: Fifty years of controlled fusion research" Plasma Phys. Control. Fusion 38 643
  32. ^ Kruskal M D and Schwarzchild "Some Instabilities of a Completely Ionized Plasma" 1954 Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 223 348
  33. ^ Kurchatov I V 1957 J. Nucl. Energy 4 193
  34. ^ Pease R S "Equilibrium Characteristics of a Pinched Gas Discharge Cooled by Bremsstrahlung Radiation" 1957 Proc. Phys. Soc. Lond. 70 11
  35. ^ Braginskii S I 1957 Zh. Eksp. Teor. Fiz 33 645; Braginskii S I 1958 Sov. Phys.—JETP 6 494
  36. ^ Haines M G et al 2005 Phys. Rev. Lett. submitted; see also EPS Conf. on Plasma Physics 2004 (London, UK) paper 73
  37. ^ Curzon F L et al "Experiments on the Growth Rate of Surface Instabilities in a Linear Pinched Discharge" 1960 Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 257 386
  38. ^ Trubnikov, Boris A., "A new hypothesis of cosmic ray generation in plasma pinches" (1992) IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science (ISSN 0093-3813), vol. 20, no. 6, p. 898-904.
  39. ^ "The PLASMAK™ Configuration and Ball Lightning" (PDF) presented at the International Symposium on Ball Lightning; July 1988
  40. ^ Witalis, E. A. "Plasma-physical aspects of charged-particle beams" (1981) Physical Review A - General Physics, 3rd Series, vol. 24, Nov. 1981, p. 2758-2764
  41. ^ Anthony L . Peratt, "Physics of the Plasma Universe", 1992 Springer-Verlag, ISBN 0-387-97575-6
  42. ^ Carlqvist, Per, "Cosmic electric currents and the generalized Bennett relation" (1988) Astrophysics and Space Science (ISSN 0004-640X), vol. 144, no. 1-2, May 1988, p. 73-84
  43. ^ J. H. Jeans, "The stability of a spherical nebula" Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 199 (1902)
  44. ^ Examples of electromagnetic pinch can crushers can be found at (a) Bob LaPointe's site on High Voltage Devices and Experiments (b) Tristran's Electromagnetic Can Crusher (including schematic) (c) Sam Borros's Solid State Can Crusher
  45. ^ Sam Borros's PowerLabs' Solid State Can Crusher
  46. ^ "The Con-Artist Physics of Ocean's Eleven: Hit Movie Plays Fast and Loose with Nature's Laws", Inside Science News Service, January 8, 2002. 

See also

  • Madison Symmetric Torus (Reversed field pinch, How to make a toroidal pinch)
  • Z-pinch
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Pinch_(plasma_physics)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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