The understanding of fracture phenomena of a material at extremely high strain rates is a key issue for a wide variety of scientific research ranging from applied science and technological developments to fundamental science such as laser-matter interaction and geology. Despite its interest, its study relies on a fine multiscale description, in between the atomic scale and macroscopic processes, so far only achievable by large-scale atomic simulations. Direct ultrafast real-time monitoring of dynamic fracture (spallation) at the atomic lattice scale with picosecond time resolution was beyond the reach of experimental techniques. We show that the coupling between a high-power optical laser pump pulse and a femtosecond x-ray probe pulse generated by an x-ray free electron laser allows detection of the lattice dynamics in a tantalum foil at an ultrahigh strain rate of e ~2 × 108 to 3.5 × 108 s−1. A maximal density drop of 8 to 10%, associated with the onset of spallation at a spall strength of ~17 GPa, was directly measured using x-ray diffraction. The experimental results of density evolution agree well with large-scale atomistic simulations of shock wave propagation and fracture of the sample. Our experimental technique opens a new pathway to the investigation of ultrahigh strain-rate phenomena in materials at the atomic scale, including high-speed crack dynamics and stress-induced solid-solid phase transitions.
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