GENERAL ARTICLES

Will Atomic Energy Fuel The Future?

LEONARD I. KATZIN May 15 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

Will Atomic Energy Fuel The Future?

LEONARD I. KATZIN May 15 1946

Will Atomic Energy Fuel The Future?

"Atomic energy won’t run planes, cars and locomotives, but it can heat cities, electrify farms, develop wilderness wealth"

LEONARD I. KATZIN

THE ATOMIC BOMB that blasted Hiroshima also produced the greatest outburst of rosy-hued and fantastic

dreaming since Marco Polo returned with his fabulous tales of far Cathay. Such as these:

Motor cars will roll from the production line complete with a built-in source of atomic power on which they will run forever, with never a stop at the gas station;

“Power pills” will keep planes in the air and ocean liners endlessly plowing the seas, without need to refuel;

All industrial production will be geared to atomic energy, which will be almost as free as the air, until everything from homes to baby buggies will be within pocketbook range of the humblest Zulu tribesman.

It’s time we stopped this Sunday-supplement atom gazing to consider what atomic

energy can and cannot do for us, within the practical limits suggested by what we’ve found out about it so far.

And it’s also time we considered how long commercial development may be delayed by the present U. S. Government policy of military secrecy, which forbids the atomic scientists to share their knowledge with the industrial engineers who can put this great new source of power to peacetime usefulness.

In the first place, on the basis of present knowledge, at any rate, you may as well forget those “power pills.”

The motor car of any future we can see will not be powered by an atomic engine, because the engine would be much larger than the car. itself. Atomic energy is out for airplanes and locomotives, too, for similar reasons.

It might be feasible for large ocean-going vessels, although the advantages would lie chiefly in the saving of cargo space, since it would no longer be necessary to carry bulky fuels like coal and oil.

You could have an individual atomic power unit for your farm, but it would be at least as large as your barn and highly uneconomic, as it could produce sufficient energy to supply a medium-size city with light, heat and industrial power.

That is the catch—manufacturing atomic energy

is a large - scale proposition. It is true that, by Einstein’s equation, a single drop of water represents a tremendous equivalent in energy, but we know of no practical way of making the transformation of water into energy—and we can foresee none. A pound of uranium, as consumed by “fission” under present methods, will produce a total of some 11,400,000 kilowatt-hours of energy—enough to satisfy the home needs of a city of 20,000 people for a year. But machinery necessary to produce that energy will weigh many tons and require a sizeable plant to house it.

Before we explain why atomic energy will be thus limited in its application, it should be quickly pointed out that the coming of the “atomic age” does mean great advances for mankind.

An atomic energy plant can be erected and operated to supply power almost anywhere it is needed. It doesn’t have to be built beside a Niagara Falls. It doesn’t depend on rail lines and endless carloads of coal or tank cars of fuel oil. The machinery to construct it could be broken down and flown to any location in the far north, for instance, where power is needed, and so could the “fuel.”

Remember that one pound of uranium “fuel” will produce power to the extent of 11,400,000 kilowatthours. To produce as much power by present methods

would require hauling roughly 1,500 tons of coal, or 250,000 gallons of fuel oil or gasoline, or piping 40 million cubic feet of natural gas, or twice as much artificial gas. An atomic plant the size of a big city electric power substation would produce approximately as much power as a hydroelectric development like Shipshaw in Quebec, or Boulder Dam in Colorado.

With heat and power supplied through release of atomic energy rich northern areas might be made more livable and highly productive. R would no longer be necessary to ship ores long distances in their crude forms, but their valuable constituents might be refined at the mines. Bauxite, for example, might be transformed immediately into aluminum, avoiding the long and wasteful shipping from South America it now undergoes. Uranium mines, such as the now famous one at Great Bear Lake, could produce uranium from the pitchblende ore . right on the spot—and the “end product,” much reduced in bulk, could be flown out year round.

But before going any farther we should

consider the basic methods by which atomic energy is produced, so as to understand the “why” of its advantages and limitations. And we should understand what atomic energy will cost and what form it will take.

An atom can be compared to a miniature solar system, having a central core, or nucleus, like the sun, about which revolve at tremendous speeds particles called electrons—much as the planets revolve about the earth. The nucleus is composed of two kinds of particles called protons and neutrons.

The atom of the lightweight form of uranium, U-235, is split when its nucleus is bombarded with neutrons, which action transforms part of the U-235 into other substances and the rest of it into energy, a vast amount of energy when compared to the amount of matter consumed in the process—5,000,000 times the energy released by the chemical burning of an equal weight of TNT.

When sufficiently large quantities of uranium are brought together under certain conditions two things happen—-the atom-splitting process is self-starting, and it becomes continuous, or what scientists call a “chain reaction.” The neutrons which start the process may come from atomic reactions inside the uranium itself, or from cosmic rays which continuously bombard the earth from outer space.

The chain reaction results

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Will Atomic Energy Fuel the Future?

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because when a neutron splits the U-235 atom it not only releases energy but also knocks one to three other neutrons out of the nucleus and these in turn bombard other neighboring U-235 atoms, releasing more energy— and more neutrons to continue the process.

Because many of these newly released neutrons might escape right out of the material without doing their share of the work, they are passed through a “moderator” which slows them down and reflects them back into the uranium to carry on the chain reaction. A further substance is also required to act as a “sponge” to absorb some of the neutrons and provide a means of keeping the process from getting out of control.

The moderator commonly used in the United States is graphite, and because at first this was built up brick by brick in constructing the atomic energy “furnace,” this has come to be called a “pile.” Rods of cadmium or boron steel are used as the “sponge” or conty^Uer.

The pile takes the form of a huge cube of graphite pierced by horizontal channels like the holes in a Swiss cheese. Sealed metal cylinders containing the uranium are slid into these channels until the chain reaction begins. Bars of cadmium or boron steel are slid in and out of other channels in the pile to slow down the reaction or break the chain and stop it.

Large-scale Production

Thus it can be seen why production of atomic energy must be a large-scale proposition. A certain minimum quantity of uranium is required to achieve the self-starting chain reaction, and this must be carried out in combination with the moderating and controlling substances. Actually, such a pile will require some 10 tons of natural uranium (containing about 140 pounds of U-235) and probably an equal tonnage of graphite. So for a start the smallest atomic energy machine using natural uranium requires a basic 20 tons of material—a bit of a load for a motor car!

But besides this weight and bulk two heavy accessories are needed. One is an efficient forced cooling system (usually water) for the pile, which otherwise would become disastrously hot. The second is a shield to protect humans against lethal radiations equivalent to those emitted by tons of radium. A three-foot thick steel shield or an eight-foot concrete wall is needed for high-power piles.

For even the most compact piles the shield alone could hardly weigh less than 50 tons. But in addition to having

a critical size, the pile has a critical shape or the process won’t work. Such is the over-all shape and weight of the smallest atomic energy plant that a railway locomotive could not carry one and still pass through existing tunnels. Normal railroad clearance is about 10 by 15 feet. And airplanes which will carry a power plant of more than 50 tons (and that apart from the weight of the plane itself and its payload) are not yet known.

As already suggested, such a plant might prove useful on a seagoing vessel; but while fuel storage space would be saved for cargo, the saving on fuel costs would be of little significance. For it is estimated that fuel represents only 12% of the operating costs of a 17,000ton liner.

Which brings up the question, how will the cost of atomic energy compare with the cost of power from existing services? The answer is that it will be at least as cheap—and perhaps cheaper —when atomic power techniques are perfected.

Assuming that U-235 is consumed as completely as the combustion fuels with which it is being compared, a pound of U-235 would have to cost not more than $7,500 to compete with bituminous coal at $5 a ton. If the U-235 cost $39,000 a pound, it would be as economical as gasoline at 15 cents a gallon. At the same price it could compete with artificial gas costing 50 cents 1,000 cubic feet. Or, at about $20,000 a pound, U-235 could compete with natural gas at 50 cents 1,000 cubic feet.

Natural uranium ready for use in the pile would probably cost no more than $20 a pound today—but 140 pounds of natural uranium are required to give a pound of U-235, which thus in natural or “crude” form would cost $2,800. Because we do not know how this figure is affected by plant costs for “burning” this crude fuel, or how efficient is U-235 combustion, this cost may be increased. On the other hand it is known that part of the U-235 which is consumed goes to produce plutonium from U-238, and that this plutonium is equivalent to additional U-235. This may even double or treble the effective power production from the original material.

Keeping these possibilities in mind we see that uranium may compete economically with the traditional fuels. It would, of course, be even more economical if we had some good way of consuming a significant part of the abundantU-238 portionof the uranium.

But note one other word of warning. Even if atomic energy proves to be a cheaper “fuel” for the power generators, this will not necessarily mean lower electric bills for the householder. The costs of manufacturing electricity are estimated to be only 17% of the price paid by the consumer; the largest factor is distributing cost—those high-

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tension wires, substations, etc.—which will not change much. As a man in the field once said, it costs more to have the meters read than it does to make the electricity.

Our Old Friend Heat

But why all this taik of using atomic energy as “fuel” to turn our present power generators? Isn’t atomic energy some entirely new form of wonder energy, different from anything we have at present?

No—the atomic pile simply provides a revolutionarily new method of producing an old form of energy—heat. The atomic bomb that burst over Hiroshima produced heat of 100 million degrees F. Similarly, the largest percentage of energy released from the pile is in the form of heat. Such terrific heat, in fact, that the difficulty is not the usual one of obtaining high enough temperatures to run heat engines efficiently, but of keeping the temperatures from getting too high for the metals of which the machines are now made! But because heat energy is a type with which man has long been familiar, we know many ways of making it do useful work. We can use it to heat water or air, to make steam to run oursteam engines, and to make hot gases to run turbines.

Every city dweller will see one morethan-welcome money, muscle and nuisance saver that such an atomic pile can make possible—central heating plants from which live steam may be piped underground • into every home, banishing the basement furnace forever. But apart from this “innovation” (some cities, such as Winnipeg, already have central heating from coal-burning steam plants), the advent of atomic power will not revolutionize our practical use of power. We won’t have to junk our electric generators or other machines. There will simply be a change from coal or oil-burning boilers to a boiler heated by atomic power, for operating electric generators and other purposes. It is just like changing from wood to coal fuel, or coal to oil, except for the revolutionary method.

The piles already in existence at Hanford, Wash., are constantly producing atomic power in the form of heat. Since the principal function of these piles is the manufacture of plutonium for use in the production of the atomic bomb, no effort is made to use the heat, which serves only to warm the water of the Columbia River. It is clear that only a change in design of the piles developed to meet wartime needs is necessary to meet needs for sources of industrial heat. And then we need only adapt present machinery to use this instead of present sources of heat.

Just how will the development of atomic power on the basis of our present knowledge affect the lives of individuals? The North American city dweller will not notice much change. His electricity will still cost about the same, and it will act no differently in his toaster, lamp or radio than when the generators were run by coal or water power. The radiator steam will be the same if the heat is supplied from the central heating plant, instead of coming from the furnace in his house.

There may be noticeably less smoke and coal dust in the air, and collars may stay clean longer. Housewives will bless the largely dust-free furnaceless house of the atomic age. And the saving in transportation of fuels will be tremendous. Consider the boatloads and trainloads of coal which supply winter fuel for Montreal, Toronto, Minneapolis, Chicago and other great cities. Atomic energy would free all

this transportation for other uses, and the coal so saved would be available for chemical use—to give synthetic gasoline and furnish the basic ingredients of many plastics, fibres and other synthetic chemicals.

The dweller in rich farm areas will notice more changes. He will find electric high-tension lines passing in the vicinity of his farm in areas where electrification is not now available or economical. This change alone will tremendously alter many areas. Local communities will become larger, and have more diversified services to offer the surrounding farm areas. Many regional mills, cold-storage plants and other farmer’s aids will not be possible. The general effect seems likely to be one of decreasing dependence on the facilities in the distant large cities.

The greatest changes on this continent, one might guess, would come in the areas of bitter climate and rich resources. In the north country— Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories — complete changes can occur. Relatively cheap and abundant electricity can be furnished to communities already in existence, making them more comfortable and giving them a chance to grow. Industries will have a power source on which to base their production or services. New communities will now be able to arise in whatever areas they may be desirable, because a pile constructed at that site will make them possible, furnishing heat, light and power.

Fresh fruits and vegetables will be available even in the depths of the winter night, because greenhouses heated and lit by pile-furnished electricity will be growing them in water culture or in soil. There will also be fresh eggs from atomically heated poultry runs. Electrically operated cold-storage plants could be stocked in summer with quick-frozen produce for winter consumption, with all the flavor and food values of the fresh food.

So much for what the power itself may mean. The research developments in medicine, science, and technology which will be made possible by the radioactive byproducts of pile operation have not been touched on. In themselves these developments may mean more to the human race than the industrial power.

How Long to Wait?

If all that remains to realize these dreams is to change the design of the atomic piles now operating and adapt our present machinery to using atomically generated heat, how long must we wait?

The first pile to give a self-sustaining chain reaction generated one-half watt of power on Dec. 2, 1942. By January, 1943, the decision had been made to build a plutonium production plant of large capacity. Construction on the first such pile started in June, 1943, and the pile was in actual operation in September, 1944. The problems of redesigning a pile from the graphitemoderated plutonium production unit to one suitable for supplying industrial power is less than that of designing the first high-powered pile for producing plutonium.

The wartime urgency, which produced such swift developments so far, will be lacking. But considering various counterbalancing factors, one can still say with some assurance that within two years of seriously attacking the design problem a pile giving industrial power should be in operation. It is quite possible that the time could be even shorter than this. Professor Robert Oppenheimer has said he believes a pile giving an operational power level of a million kilowatts is

commercially attainable within five years, but this would be a much more ambitious project than one of say 250,000 or even 400,000 kilowatts—the latter a capacity equal to the Queenston hydro plant at Niagara Falls.

But this is not a prediction that two years from now piles will be in use giving industrial power. One reason is that before such piles can be designed and built, military minds must be convinced that atomic nuclear energy means something more than an atomic bomb, and that the “secrets oí atomic energy belong to all men.

The men who at present know most about the details of piles and chain reactions are forbidden to discuss the information at their command with other scientists and with engineers. The engineer who knows about heat engines, turbines, generators, and who knows the industrial power problems whose solution will mean more and different products, new and better jobs, cannot talk officially to the atomic expert in order to find out how atomic power will help him to his goal.

Application of this atomic energy to civilian needs cannot begin until wartime secrecy rules are abandoned or other scientists have had time to duplicate the researches carried out by the “Manhattan Engineer District, as the war’s greatest secret project was called.

Some hope may be seen in the report to Congress by the State Department’s five-man committee on atomic energy, which contained this sentence:

“U-235 and plutonium can be denatured; such denatured materials do not readily lend themselves to the making of atomic explosives, but they can still be used in reactors for the generation of power or energy.”

The committee would set up an international “atomic energy authority,” which would control all usable deposits of uranium, and it alone would do the dangerous processing which would produce the U-235 and plutonium from which bombs are made. But the committee would have this atomic energy authority release the “safe” or “denatured” uranium to various nations and through them to commercial organizations for the development of atomic energy for industrial and medical uses.

Atomic scientists may not .all agree with those on the committee, but some such action is to be hoped for soon. For, far from abandoning the secrecy which cloaks the Manhattan project, the U. S. Congress is still considering legislation which would extend the security blanket to all scientists in the country.

Drive in Comfort

Long-distance truck drivers, busmen, cold-storage workers and private motorists will soon be able to buy electrically heated suits. These suits were made in the United Kingdom during the war for both British and U. S. airmen and tank crews. The factories are now turning to production for home and export. Orders from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, America, Swe den, Norway and Holland are pouring in, reports the London Daily Express. The manufacturers of this heated clothing will be opening a big, new fac tory in the north of England in order to step up production. The output will be on a very large scale—it is estimated that 1,400 workers can turn out 1,000 suits a day—but it will be some time be fore the supply meets the demand. United Kingdom Information Office.