Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Manhattan Project: A View at a Scientific Project That Changed The World


When looking back at the technological advances in the past century, there is arguable no scientific advance that has affected our lives so deeply then the production and use of nuclear energy, as well as the understanding of the quantum world.  The Manhattan Project, a secret government codename, was a government plan to secretly understand and apply particle physics research to create a fission bomb that could end the war with United States and Allied victory.  The project took place in secret all over the country, but was concentrated in three distinct locations other than D.C.: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.  Each distinct location had its significance in developing this world-changing weapon.  How exactly do people from several different backgrounds from physicists, engineers, government officials, military personnel, and contractors work together to come to the end result, the atom bomb, and what process(s) would work in making the material for the bomb in just three short years? The cooperation within the Project was almost impossible to be executed because of the different ideologies of the people involved because of many political, moral, and financial discrepancies.  In the end though, the Project succeeded to create three bombs in total: a test or sample bomb that was tested in Los Alamos, and the latter two that were used in combat in Japan which subsequently ended the war. 

            The Manhattan Project was a joint venture between a variety of different fields of study. Among them, many were professional scientists and engineers as well as government officials and military personnel.  Each group had specific jobs which would culminate in the application of the theory of atomic fission, the production of the enriched uranium/plutonium through different diffusion processes, the design and production of the bomb, and the managerial position to see that each work force worked together to reach the common goal: the atomic bomb.  Some of the scientists that took part in this joint venture include many Nobel Prize winners: Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, James Franck, Oppenheimer and Otto Frisch, most of whom were emigrants from Europe who fled Nazi oppression.  Thousands of young chemists and physicists all over the United States were employed in this government project because time was of the essence, the virtual time clock was ticking to the hour at which Germany or the United States would effectively have and use the bomb.  The jobs of these scientists included testing the theoretical ideas beyond the fission of the isotope Uranium 235, which was considered quite difficult because it was almost identical to that of Uranium 238, and only made up one percent of the element Uranium.  Other jobs of these scientists were to produce a method of diffusing this isotope properly to separate the two because the isotope 235 was the only fissionable material present at the time.  Scientist, engineers, and overseers of the Project struggled to come together to create such a system that could create a sufficient amount of enriched uranium that would be used to create the bomb.  General Groves of the Army Corp of Engineers was put in charge of the whole project because his great credentials after he was oversaw the construction of the Pentagon, while the production of the bomb was put in the hands of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Groves though, was looked down upon by the scientists for he did not understand atomic physics, which caused great turmoil between the scientists who were only interested in advances in science, while the government, military, and contractors saw the opportunity as a political, economic, and military gain for the United States, but Du Pont which came in as a contractor to help with the production of the need material to make the bombs, did so with only making a single dollar.  They did not wish to be ridiculed again for making excessive capital gains by making military supplies.  Physicists working in laboratories all over the United States work quite different then the government because scientists wish to freely discuss their scientific matters with fellow colleagues. “Szilard sharply criticized Grove’s compartmentalization of scientists and the restraints, of the grounds of security that he placed on the exchange of information.  Szilard insisted that imagination and inventiveness in science required freedom of exchange and exploration. (397)  the government wished to keep this entire endeavor under wraps both foreign and domestic. Just to note. Fermi and Szilard and Fermi were issued a patent at the end of the war for their invention of the nuclear reactor.    

            After the letter from Einstein hit Washington D.C. in early 1939, which urged the development of an atomic research program, the United States took a more serious role in forming a government project in which to undergo such a production process culminating in the atom bomb.  Experimental success in nuclear fission was first made by Enrico Fermi and other physicists at the University of Chicago when they were able to create and control a Nuclear Chain Reaction.  This scientific breakthrough caused a huge chain reaction within the government project, inevitably kick-starting the production of nuclear power plants in remote locations across the United States where different methods of diffusion would take place to help create this enriched 235Uranium.  Nuclear Facilities were created in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington, as well as later in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the main assembly plant was located. Each site had its own identity towards the culmination of the bomb. The location of Oak Ridge was a significant reason for why the government decided to engage in activities there.  It was an isolated area along a huge river which would help bring electricity to the plant as well as use the water to act as a coolant for the reactors.  The basic purpose of the Oak Ridge plant was to separate the isotopes of Uranium so that 235Uranium could be isolated for it was the main fissionable element that could be used for the bomb.  The main problem at this site was the fact that pure 235Uranium was extremely difficult to produce because less than a percent of the entire element Uranium is made of this isotope 235.  At the time, the Oak Ridge crew of scientists, engineers, and product managers had installed three processes to produce 235Uranium: electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion, and thermal diffusion.  The electromagnetic, or Y-12 plant, was put under the operation of Tennessee Eastman Corporation. This plant was finished in November 1943.  This plant at the Clinton Engineering Works site was used to electromagnetic separation to extract the lighter 235 isotope from the 238.  This 184 ton magnet used scientists and engineers used cauldrons to separate the isotopes, which were used in the bomb “Little Boy” which was dropped on the city of Hiroshima.  The design for the electromagnetic process was made by UC Berkley’s physicist Lawrence and his laboratory team.  Also in early 1943, “Groves asked M.W. Kellogg, a large and experienced company in engineering and construction organization, to design a gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge.”(403)  He went to add other corporations to the project such as Carbine and Carbon Chemicals Corporation as well as Chrysler Corporation.  “The general idea of this process was using a porous membrane to separate the lighter isotopes in and an element from the heavier ones.”(411)  In order for this separation to occur, an unprecedented amount of filters and barriers had to be constructed, and was a process well known by chemical engineers.  After a few years of problems with the type of barriers to use within the diffusion system, and a change in directors from Urey to a soft-spoken Southerner by the name of Lauchlin Currie, who was a Union Carbide engineer.  At the height of the project, there were more than 10,000 construction workers, 900 Kellex workers, and seven hundred Columbia people working.  “In the spring of 1945, the gaseous diffusion plant with the sintered nickel powder barrier operated sufficiently well for him to resort to the ingenious plan of using outputs as feeds, or inputs. Uranium, first enriched by a thermal-diffusion plant, was fed into a gaseous-diffusion plant for further enrichment, then finally into the electromagnetic-separation plant for the enrichment needed for use in the bomb.”(414)  the process of gaseous diffusion, in the end, was deemed so efficient that its output could be used without further enriching. 

            The Hanford Plant in Washington was designed for the production and stockpile of plutonium, an element later used in the making of atomic weapons.  The plutonium project was a project of two sides: the Chicago Lab and the Du Pont team of engineers and designers.  The man put in charge of being the liason between the two organizations was Greenewalt. The problem such as Du Pont ‘s financial involvement and use of their Chicago lab for an explosives facility caused  uproar with the scientists at the Chicago Lab.    In addition, without telling, Groves and Du Pont Head of Nylon decided to put small-scale plutonium reactors in Tennessee, after promising to keep them near Chicago.  “The unrest at Chicago did not prevent Groves a Du Pont from forging ahead.  In February 1943, Groves acquired 500,000 acres in Hanford, Washington, for plutonium-production piles, plutonium separation plants, and work housing. “(399)  The location of the plant was near the Columbia River, which was key for electric power from  high –voltage transmission line connecting Grand Coulee and Bonneville hydroelectric dams, and well as a source of water for cooling the reactors.  The construction of the facility employed more than 40,000 workers with skills ranging from electricians, welders, carpenters, millwrights, and pipefitters.  Construction came as a result of the experimental data a construction design from Du Pont, which culminated in three giant production piles, or reactors for producing plutonium, and four plants for separating the plutonium from other products of the chain reaction taking place in the production pile.  The young chemist who discovered plutonium in February 1941, Glenn Seaborg, also developed the separation process.  He went on to say that “plutonium was so unusual as to approach the unbelievable.  Under some conditions the material is hard and brittle, while under others it’s as soft and plastic as lead.  In the end though, small amount of it are extremely toxic. (399)  With Arthur Compton, Fermi, Roger Williams and Greenwalt on hand in September 1944, they witnessed the loading of the first completed pile with slugs of uranium, a culmination of research and labor done by thousands of people.  Within weeks, the first pile of uranium was sufficient enough to produce plutonium-producing chain reaction.  Unfortunately, there was a significant problem.  After hours of full power and a successful chain reaction, the pile had shut down, and subsequently did the same after turning back on the next day.  The “poison that had been halting the reaction process was xenon 135, which was absorbing the neurons released to stimulate and continue the reaction process.  This problem was solved by American physicist John Wheeler, who was later called the “favorite scientist.  With learning about this “poisonous” discovery, they were able to make the reaction more effectively leaving them 2 piles in December, while a third was ready six weeks later. 

            In later 1942, General Groves appointed Oppenheimer to lead the search for the design of the bomb and to preside over its assembly.  Together they chose a remote sit in the dessert of New Mexico known as Los Alamos.  “Oppenheimer attracted major theoretical and experimental physicists, chemists, metallurgists, and explosives experts and well as their families to the site.  On waiting for the arrival for the fissionable material, physicists worked out highly complex theory as the basis for the design of the two types of bombs.  They pondered on the ideas of how to fully utilize the explosive potential of the fissionable material.  “Metallurgists explored the exotic properties of laboratory quantities of plutonium and U-235; and explosive experts searched for means of setting off the bomb.”  (417)  The young physicist, Seth Neddermeyer, invented a method of initiating the explosion of plutonium by implosion which caused great controversy between Neddermeyer and Naval Captain William S. Parsons, but his design  was greeted openly by Oppenheimer when mathematician John von Neuman calculated that it would work.    As was the case with scientists elsewhere in the Project, the physicists, chemists, metallurgists at Los Alamos proved themselves inventive.  A 33 year old physicist, Charles Critchfield, conceived the “initiator,” called Urchlin, first received skepticism by Oppenheimer, but ultimately supplied the neurons needed for the chain reaction.  Other work was done such as fixing the blistering on the matching surfaces of the plutonium hemispheres, by filing down te hemispheres and adding gold foil between the facing halves of the bomb’s core to achieve the necessary perfect smooth surface and sit.  Another scientist, Robert F Christy invented a gadget that would increase compression rather than extra size to achieve critical mass. 

            At the completion of the bomb, Groves and his advisors sent the U-235 bomb, also known as “Little Boy” to the Pacific Theatre.  The test bomb that they chose was known as “Fat Man” a  plutonium bomb named after Winston Churchill, which was dropped 210 miles south of Los Alamos.  This government project was known “Project Trinity”.  The site of the bomb that day changed the world forever.  Over 70 scientists petitioned against the use of the bomb militarily because of the damage it would inflict upon the people it was used on.  “Franck Szilard, several other scientists working on the Project prepared a report in 1945, before Hiroshima, recommending that the bombs, if exploded, be used in only uninhabited area in a demonstration designed to persuade Japan to surrender, and to regulate nuclear arms again a nuclear holocaust.  Unfortunately, in on August 6th, 1945, at 8:16 am, the B-29, "Enola Gay", dropped "Little Boy", the uranium bomb, on Hiroshima which killed over 100,000 people, some vaporized if they were too close to the explosion.  On the 9th of August a second bomb was dropped by a B-29, Bock’s Car, onto the city of Nagasaki.  This was a plutonium bomb by the name Fat Man that killed 70,000 by the end of the year, and over 140,000 within the next five years.

            The Nuclear Age is upon us on a global scale.  To me, atomic energy is a good vs. evil battle.  The use of nuclear weapons is extremely dangerous, and has and will kill millions if it were to get into the wrong hands.  On the other hand, nuclear energy gives us more energy and power to keep our every growing modern civilization lit up.  Even though the project has its ups and downs between scientists, military and government workers, the Manhattan Project showed the U.S. and the world that hard-work, ingenuity, perseverance, and cooperation was all that was needed to make this massive project a success. 

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