Physics Challenged Developers of Atom Bomb
Technology based in nuclear physics rather than in warfare was one of the primary challenges the World War II-era developers of the atomic bomb faced while working with hundreds of tons of uranium ore.
“When uranium comes out of the ground, it consists of two isotopes, one of which is much less common, and that’s the one needed for making an atomic bomb,” says Cameron Reed, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics at Alma College. “Because no ordinary chemical separation technique will work, isolating it is a very difficult process that requires a huge effort.”
As a solution, developers working on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s needed some way to create a strong magnetic field. Reed says wrapping a wire around a coil and passing a current through it is one way to do this.
The most common material used for such extensive wiring is copper, but because it was such a high-priority item during World War II, he says developers had to get creative.
In the January-February issue of American Scientist, Reed writes how the U.S. War Department secretly borrowed 14,000 tons of government silver from the U.S. Treasury Department’s vault in its drive to make the world’s first atomic bomb.
“Copper was too expensive to use,” he says. “They also didn’t want to draw attention to the project, so these tons were tracked down to the ounce. Developers were scrupulous in making sure all the silver was accounted for, and as a result, they ended up recovering more than they used.”
Book by Cameron Reed
Though he began researching the Manhattan Project about 15 years ago, Reed says the more he learns, the more he realizes there’s a lot left to learn. His book, The Physics of the Manhattan Project, was published in October 2010.
He continues to study “the thousands and thousands of feet of linear documents” related to the project, hoping to come across interesting and forgotten aspects of the project.
“It’s fascinating to read the documents because you get a sense of how much they were struggling,” says Reed. “At times, it looked hopeless, but they preserved. Without the raw materials, developers couldn’t have completed the project, though, and I think that’s something most people are not aware of, because it has faded into history.”
Posted: Wed, January 19th, 2011 at 7:58AM