Articles

The atom is their bloodhound

A new super-sleuth called the isotope is helping four young Canadian scientists solve industrial problems like seeing through steel or photographing the inside of a rice kernel. They got their start with a garage and a rented typewriter

FRED BODSWORTH December 10 1955
Articles

The atom is their bloodhound

A new super-sleuth called the isotope is helping four young Canadian scientists solve industrial problems like seeing through steel or photographing the inside of a rice kernel. They got their start with a garage and a rented typewriter

FRED BODSWORTH December 10 1955

The atom is their bloodhound

A new super-sleuth called the isotope is helping four young Canadian scientists solve industrial problems like seeing through steel or photographing the inside of a rice kernel. They got their start with a garage and a rented typewriter

FRED BODSWORTH

WOULD you like to measure the thickness of a cigarette paper? Look into a pipeline six feet underground? Inspect the steel reinforcing rods encased in a ten-foot-

thick concrete pillar? Take a picture through twelve inches of steel? Measure the amount of air in a gallon of ice cream? Or photograph the inside of a rice kernel to see if it’s wormy?

In Canadian industry there are firms that badly need these jobs done, and there’s one firm in Canada that does them. The firm’s stock in trade, enabling it to perform seemingly miraculous stunts, is atomic radiation.

It all began in 1950 when four enterprising young atomic scientists resigned from their jobs at Chalk River, the Canadian government’s big atomic research centre, set up a laboratory in an old garage at Oakville, near Toronto, and became the first company in North America to sell radioactivity for peacetime industrial use. After a hectic struggle during which they proved even, to their own satisfaction that no matter how good they might be as scientists they were poor businessmen, the four finally got established in the then unexplored atomsfor-industry field.

Today, as Isotope Products Ltd., with labs and offices in several Canadian and U. S. cities, they are grossing $700,000 to $800,000 a year by applying the mysterious power of the atom to a bewildering variety of tasks. IPL atomic experts have worked during the last couple of years from the muskeg country of Newfoundland and Alaska south to Jamaica and the Texas Panhandle. For instance, when builders of the U. S. government’s secret atom-powered submarine, the Nautilus, wanted its welded seams checked for safety, they called experts of Canada’s IPL to the Groton, Conn., shipyards to do the job, because no U. S. companies employing radioactivity could match the record and experience of the Canadian company.

IPL is not harnessing the atom as a source of primary power; instead it is harnessing that other and secondary power of the atom—its penetrating radiation. In a way, IPL’s industrial trouble shooters form one of the strangest detective forces on earth. They are “private eyes” with atomic spectacles that permit them to peer into spots where no eye or no instrument could ever see before. Much of their work is routine, but the strange versatility of the atom gets them involved at times in some peculiar jobs.

About a year ago Isotope Products

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The Atom Is Their Bloodhound

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Ltd. was called in to settle a threatened lawsuit between a southwestern Ontario cement-manufacturing firm and a building contractor. The firm used four forty-foot-high settling tanks for producing and refining cement. The tanks, made of foot-thick concrete, were supposed to be reinforced with steel rods set six inches apart inside the concrete. After a relatively short period of use one tank developed a crack from top to bottom. The owners called back the contractor and accused him of skimping with the reinforcing rods. The contractor insisted that he hadn’t and blamed the crack on abusive use of the tank. To prove otherwise the owners would have to stop production and knock the big tanks apart—a move far too costly to consider. They decided they would have to repair the cracked tank themselves and hope for the best. Then they heard about Isotope Products Limited and took their problem to them.

IPL men loaded one of their atomicradiation cameras with cobalt-60, one of the most powerful of radioactive materials. It was so powerful that a piece the size of an aspirin tablet was all they needed, yet even that particle had to be encased in a two-hundredpound block of lead for safe handling. They applied strips of film to the exterior of each tank, suspended the ! camera inside at the centre, pulled off the lead shield and let the tiny fragment of cobalt-60 shoot its rays out in all directions, like tremendously powerful X-rays. The radiation pierced the concrete tank walls to the film outside. Wherever there was a steel rod within the concrete, fewer rays got through and the rod showed as a lighter line on the developed negative. The negatives revealed that the reinforcing rods were twelve to eighteen inches i apart, instead of the required six inches. The tank owners showed the negatives to the contractor and told him he could either rebuild the tanks j or be sued. He rebuilt the tanks.

Another IPL job was an atomic-age version of hunting the needle in the haystack. A brewing company had been plagued for weeks with a leak somewhere in the hundreds of feet of heating pipe that ran back and forth beneath the concrete floor of its big Toronto garage. To find the leak it looked as if the company would have to tear up fifteen thousand square feet of concrete floor six inches thick. But before they decided on ripping up the floor, they called up Dr. Don Brunton, president of Isotope Products Ltd.

IPL sealed a tablespoonful of ordinary washing soda in an aluminum capsule about the size of a man’s thumb and sent it to Chalk River to be "cooked” in the atomic pile there. The atomic cooking transformed the sodium into radioactive sodium-24, although chemically it remained ordinary washing soda. With a host of radioactive materials to choose from, all with different characteristics that fit them for different types of jobs, Brunton selected sodium-24 because its radiation would readily penetrate six inches of concrete and because its radioactive life is short, so it couldn’t leave dangerous radioactivity behind it for more than a matter of hours.

The capsule of radioactive washing soda was sent back to Toronto in a 630-pound lead shipping case and rushed by truck to the brewery garage before its radioactivity could seriously weaken. The IPL experts withdrew it

from its lead container using a clamp with a six-foot-long handle that permitted them to keep at a safe distance. Thea the aluminum capsule was pierced with a six-foot pike pole and the "hot” washing soda was poured into the pipes of the heating system. The soda dissolved in the hot water flowing through the maze of pipes and when geiger counters showed that its radioactivity had reached all points of the heating system it was flushed out with clean water. Then IPL went back over the garage floor with geiger counters and quickly detected that radioactivity remained at one spot. Brunton said it must be there that a leak had permitted some of the radioactive soda to collect in the soil surrounding the pipe. He chalked a sixinch square on the concrete floor and told brewery engineers they would find the leak directly below. They did. Instead of tearing up fifteen thousand square feet of concrete, they tore up a quarter of one square foot.

The magic little packages like cobalt60 and sodium-24 that are making atomic radiation a servant of private industry are what the scientists call "isotopes.” Briefly, an isotope is a slightly different form of a chemical element not normally radioactive but rendered radioactive artificially in a nuclear reactor.

Atomic piles or reactors producing materials for atomic bombs can, as a side line, produce radioactive isotopes for industrial and medical use. In Canada, isotopes are made only by the government in its nuclear reactor at Chalk River. About eighty different types of isotope are produced there and they are sold for research, medical and industrial purposes throughout much of the world. Isotope Products Ltd. uses about a dozen different kinds.

Cooking With Atoms

Radioactivity has two principal forms—beta rays and gamma rays. The penetrating power of beta rays is limited; they are stopped, for example, by one-third of an inch of aluminum. Gamma rays are much more penetrating; the strongest of them will pass through one foot of steel or through ten feet of concrete. Every element, when rendered radioactive, produces its own characteristic radiation. Some isotopes have a radioactive life of thousands of years, others lose their radioactivity in a matter of hours. So there is an isotope fitted for every job.

When IPL requires an isotope, a small quantity of the element that will produce the radioactivity desired is placed in an aluminum container and sent to Chalk River. The isotope itself may vary from the size of an aspirin to that of a flashlight battery. The isotope-to-be is moved mechanically into the heart of the Chalk River reactor where IPL has its own reserved space rented on an annual basis. When the "cooking” is completed (it may require anything from a few days to a couple of months) the now radioactive isotope is withdrawn and dropped into a lead shipping case. All this, of course, has to he done mechanically because the isotopes cannot be approached safely by human operators until sealed in their protective lead cases.

IPL’s biggest business is the design, production and sale of isotope instruments for various measuring and gauging purposes. The man who superintends the design and develop-

ment of the instruments is ILP vicepresident Dr. Norman Zinken Alcock, a thirty-seven-year-old Vancouver-born scientist who made himself, in turn, an expert in electrical engineering, then radar, and now atomic energy. During World War II he worked for several years with radar scientists in Britain, and the first radars carried by heavy bombers were sets he helped design.

Alcock explains that measurement by atomic radiation is made possible by the fact that rays passing through a material are absorbed in direct proportion to its thickness. The thicker the material, the fewer the rays that get through. Because isotopes shoot out millions of rays per second, very minute variations in a material’s thickness can be detected. Instruments using this principle have their widest application in controlling the thickness of products like paper, plastics, floor coverings, roofing and metal foils— all products that come off a mill in a steadily moving sheet.

The first instrument perfected for this job—and it is still lPL’s biggest seller—is called a "betameter.” In it a beta ray source is suspended above the moving sheet material and shielded so that its rays are beamed downward only. Beneath the material is a detector which counts the number of rays that get through to it, recording on a dial or graph variations in thickness as minute as one percent. With tissue papers one percent can be as little as one thirty-thousandth of an inch. In some betameter hook-ups an operator watches the dial and when a variation is recorded he adjusts the flow of raw materials manually to maintain proper thickness. In others the whole operation is automatic, the betameter itself controlling the flow.

Betameters cost five thousand to ten thousand dollars and IPL has built and sold more than a hundred of them in the last five years.

In pre-betameter days, weight and thickness of sheet materials were checked by haphazard and periodic sampling. Experienced papermen would pat the paper sheet coming off a machine or squeeze it between their fingers. Paper, roofing materials and other such products were often checked by cutting a strip off each roll and weighing it. Such sampling methods frequently covered no more than one part in ten thousand and a machine could be turning out a faulty underweight or overweight product for a long period before it was detected.

Indicative of the extent to which some industries rely on the instrument, production of automobile radiators came to a standstill for twenty-four hours this fall when a betameter at the Anaconda American Brass plant in New Toronto was damaged. Anaconda, the largest Canadian producer of brass coils for radiators, refused to work until technicians from Isotope Products Ltd. got the betameter functioning again.

The application of coatings, like wax or glue on paper, or asphalt on roofing, can be controlled with an isotope device that is actually two betameters booked in tandem. One betameter measures thickness before coating, the other after, then they automatically subtract to indicate the coating thickness and correct any deviation of flow.

Atomic radiation can also measure a material’s density as well as its thickness. Using gamma rays, the density gauge probes through the steel walls of

Now even the thickness of tissue paper is measured by sensitive isotope rays

Workmen had to clear the pipeline to save the world from radioactive gophers

tanks or pipes to record the density of fluids inside, detecting changes of one tenth of one percent. In pipelines where different products such as gasoline, crude or fuel oil are following each other with nothing separating them, a density gauge outside the pipe signals the approach of a different product so that it can be diverted into its proper storage tank. The sensitive gamma rays even detect a density change as slight as that between regular and premium gasolines.

IPL recently installed a density gauge in the plant of a Wisconsin producer of foam rubber to control the mixing of air in the liquid latex. This more accurate control is now sharply cutting the firm’s rubber requirements and saving tens of thousands of dollars a year. "Our product is better and more uniform, despite the fact we are now selling a lot more air in it,” a company executive says. Alcock and his scientific team are now working on a similar instrument to control the mixing of air in ice cream. "Ice cream makers are allowed by law to mix in a certain proportion of air for lightness and smoothness,” Alcock explains. "Since air is cheap, they want to use all the air the law allows.” At present they have to check by weight, a slow and inaccurate method. Alcock is confident that cobalt-60—the same isotope that is being successfully used in cancer treatment—will soon be policing ice cream production. (It won’t make the ice cream radioactive; only an atomic pile like the one at Chalk River, or an exploding bomb itself, can make other substances radioactive.)

Another major field of IPL work is radiography. Gamma rays affect film just as X-rays do, but the gammas penetrate much thicker material and still have punch enough left to leave a record on film. Dr. Peter J. Stewart, secretary of the company, is its radiography chief.

When gamma rays are shot through something like an iron casting or a welded joint, more rays get through wherever an internal flaw like a crack or air bubble offers less obstruction. These flaws are sharply outlined on film as black spots or lines.

IPL radiography crews have inspected the weld joints in hundreds of miles of oil pipelines from Texas to Alaska, moving along behind the welders and calling them back for re welding whenever the gamma ray cameras detect faulty work. "A pipeline in which every joint has been checked by gamma radiography will safely carry a much higher pressure,” Stewart explains.

On one job IPL radiographers walked six hundred and fifty miles across muskeg and bush of the Yukon and Alaska, checking welds on a new U. S. Army pipeline running from Skagway to Fairbanks. They used a darkroom mounted on a heavy-duty threequarter-ton truck that struggled along emergency roads behind the camera crews for much of the distance. The atom scientists had kibitzing onlookers even here—bears and gophers. The bears kept their distance, but the gophers quickly learned that the pipes were excellent ready-made gopher holes. Workmen had to clear each pipe carefully before welding to prevent the IPL radiographers behind them from inadvertently creating a new race of radioactive gophers.

Another job took Stewart’s cameras forty feet underwater at the big Port

Alfred docks of the Aluminum Company of Canada on the Saguenay River in Quebec. Alcan officials feared that steel piles holding up the threemillion-dollar dock were becoming dangerously pitted and corroded by sulphite wastes from a paper mill. Considerable corrosion was visible at water level but divers could see nothing in the murky water below. Stewart designed an underwater cobalt - 60 camera set to reveal corrosion pits down to ten one-thousandths of an inch in depth, and he began shooting pictures through the steel beams. There was no serious underwater corrosion.

Their next assignment was radiographing rice kernels to detect the presence of weevil larvae. Weevil infestation was worrying rice importers and IPL was asked to help by the Ontario Research Foundation.

Isotope Products Ltd. was born, at least as an idea, the moment the news teletype machines clicked out the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. At the time Don Brunton, now IPL president, was visiting the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York, in connection with wartime radar research he was doing for Canada’s National Research Council. He happened to be watching the teletype machines at mid-town Radio City the instant the great news flashed through.

"I knew at once our radar project would never be needed,” he recalls. "And I knew that atomic energy would now be opening up a vast new field of industrial engineering. It struck me suddenly, as I read the Hiroshima news, that atomic energy was the field to get into.”

On Their WayBut Where?

Brunton is a short heavy-set man who makes decisions quickly and speaks his mind bluntly. Once when he was doing postgraduate work in cosmic rays at the California Institute of Technology, he interrupted a lecture by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the famous physicist who headed the U. S. A-bomb project, and asked him to slow down because no one in the class was keeping up with him.

Brunton and Alcock had been classmates at Queen’s University and at Cal. Tech. Then they went into radar research together. When Alcock, now IPL vice-president, returned from radar work overseas both of them switched to the atomic energy field with a vague understanding that sometime they would leave research and start applying atomics in the industrial engineering field. They got PhDs at McGill, did research at Chalk River for four years, then one night in 1950 at Brunton’s home, Alcock said, "Well, hadn’t we better get going?”

They were not very sure what atomic energy could do for industry but they had a firm faith that anything so versatile would find many uses. (Actually, they thought its main use would be in tracer work, an application which later proved to be of minor importance.)

They talked it over with Dr. C. JMackenzie, their boss at Chalk River. Mackenzie doubted if they would succeed but he was all for having them try. The National Research Council had planned for some time to survey private industry for possible atomic energy applications, and Mackenzie gave Brunton this assignment. For

three months Brunton toured the industries of eastern Canada ferreting out jobs the atom could do. He found that the potential market for atomic energy looked larger than even they had hoped for.

To round out their experience, Brunton and Alcock invited two other Chalk River scientists to join them— Peter Stewart, a chemical engineer, and Ron Masked, an electronics technician. Between the four of them they raised twelve thousand dollars by cashing in pension funds, selling their cars and pooling savings. But they needed much more to set themselves up with a plant and equipment and they began looking for someone who would invest in their enterprise. The day they left Chalk River their two most promising financiers turned them down.

Gloomy and sceptical now, they rented a shabby concrete-block building on the eastern outskirts of Oakville, Ont., for sixty dollars a month. They expected to stay there two months while erecting a building of their own. They were in it two years.

"As businessmen, we had a lot to | learn,” Alcock says. "We made every mistake in the book.”

Instead of concentrating on developing business to give them something against which to borrow for capital improvements, they immediately invested two thousand dollars in land on the northern outskirts of Oakville, a mile or so from the garage workshop, and five thousand dollars in building steel. Steel was scarce then; Alcock found where some was available, so they bought it. Known as "Alcock’s fivethousand-dollar folly,” it is still rusting away behind their present one-hundredthousand-dollar one-story plant, because when they finally got around to building they learned that it was a type of steel they couldn’t use.

With only five thousand dollars of their original stake left, they began remodeling the cold, abandoned garage they were renting. President, vicepresident and secretary did practically all the work. They swabbed oil stains from the cement floor, made their own work benches, installed their own plumbing.

Meanwhile, money was running out fast. They rented a typewriter, because they couldn’t afford to buy one, and began writing letters appealing for financial backing. Twice a day they haunted the Oakville post office, hoping the mail would bring them a surprise c heque from some sponsor.

No cheque came. But one day they received a telephone call from a prominent Montreal engineer who thought he might raise some money from friends. "Would they come down and talk it over?” Brunton, Alcock and Stewart took the next train to Montreal. When they met the engineer—"the goose that was going to lay our golden egg”— he asked if they had a hotel reservation. They didn’t. "I’ll fix it up for you,” he offered. He took them to the hotel and they found that he had reserved a thirty-dollar-a-day suite.

They settled down in their luxurious surroundings, thanked him for his great generosity and began explaining their company and its business prospects. At noon, still listening attentively, the j engineer ordered an expensive dinner sent up to the suite. The Oakville trio thanked him again and began secretly complimenting themselves on having at last found someone interested who apparently had money to spend. The lavish spending went on for two days. When they checked out, Brunton said casually to the hotel cashier that he understood their engineer host had arranged to pay the bill. But the engineer, it turned out, had made no such arrangements. The bill was almost

one hundred and fifty dollars and the three of them had less than one hundred between them. They phoned several Montreal friends and scraped up fifty dollars so they could pay the bill and start for home. A week later their engineer friend wrote that he had regretfully found it impossible to interest any of his friends in the Oakville investment.

Three months had passed. Isotope Products Ltd. hadn’t yet been able to either earn or borrow a cent. The original twelve thousand dollars was almost gone. They now had a staff a

stenographer who had to work with coat and snowboots on to keep warm in the draughty uninsulated building.

"We were always scheming to maintain a false front for prospective customers,” Alcock recalls. "When a prospect phoned and offered to come to Oakville to discuss a job personally, we always made excuses to keep him away and arranged to see him in his own office. Anyone seeing the shack we were working in would have lost confidence in us at once.”

They had only one telephone, and when someone would ask for the "sales

department,” whoever had picked up the phone would say, "I’ll connect you.” Then he would click the receiver and call over someone else to carry on the conversation in a different voice but still on the same phone.

Once a Montreal prospect telephoned and asked to have a salesman visit his Montreal plant. Brunton said he was sorry, but "the whole sales staff” was tied up with other appointments. "Would you have a man coming to Toronto anytime soon?” Brunton asked. "Probably one of our people could meet you for a short time there.”

A Toronto meeting was arranged. Actually, IPL at that time couldn’t afford to gamble train fare to Montreal and back.

Many prospects were developing but there was still no revenue coming in.

Then one day their phone rang. Peter Stewart answered it, and a voice asked, "Can you chase pigs?” Stewart knew that "chasing pigs” was an operation connected in some way with the oil pipeline business, not farming. Furthermore he had a vague recollection of having read that somewhere in the Middle East atomic radiation had been successfully used in a "pig chasing” operation. So he replied, "We certainly can.”

It was the Interprovincial Pipe Line Company; they wanted a pig chased from Regina to the Manitoba-U. S. border south of Winnipeg, about three hundred miles; they wanted the job started next day, and how much would it cost? Whatever the job was, Stewart knew too well that IPL needed it. He bargained for more time but had to guarantee that they would start in two days. He promised to wire back in an hour, stating the cost.

The husband of their stenographer was an oilman. The stenographer called him immediately and asked, "What’s a pig?” He explained that in oilmen’s jargon a "pig” is the big scraper or wire brush forced periodically through pipelines to clean them inside. The pigs sometimes jammed at valves or elbows and when that happened it often took days to find them.

Stewart decided it would be a simple matter to attach a radioactive source on the pig, then follow its progress with a geiger counter. He wired Interprovincial: "Prepared to start in two days stop cost is hundred dollars per day.”

Where Did the Beer Stop?

Stewart hired an assistant, Geoffrey Leighton, another Chalk River scientist, who has been with IPL ever since. Then he borrowed plane fare from the bank, had a capsule of cobalt60 sent to Regina from Chalk River and within twenty-four hours he and Leighton were flying west. Three weeks later IPL had successfully completed its first job. Stewart returned triumphantly to Oakville with two thousand dollars. Isotope Products Ltd. had won at least a short reprieve from bankruptcy.

Meanwhile Brunton and Alcock were working night and day, developing a level gauge which could be run up the side of a tank to reveal the level of fluids inside. Actually, it was a type of density gauge that would flash a signal at the level where fluid stopped and air began. John Labatt Ltd., the London, Ont., brewing company, was interested in the gauge for checking the level of beer in storage tanks. For IPL much was at stake because Labatt’s was the only large company remaining that was still considering IPL’s request for financial assistance. It was vital that the level gauge make a good impression.

The gauge was tested for weeks in the ramshackle Oakville atomic laboratory. Slowly the bugs were eliminated and it was working perfectly. Proudly Alcock and Brunton carried their gadget to London for the crucial demonstration. Labatt’s officials, from vice-presidents down, gathered in the refrigerated room where the beer storage tanks were located. Brunton, holding the long-handled level gauge, explained that it could be rolled up the outside of a tank and would automatically flash a light when it reached the level of fluid inside. He carried it to the closest tank, turned it on, and

the light immediately began flashing erratically.

"It was the most embarrassing moment of my life,” Brunton says. "It was pathetic. I almost wept. We coaxed and tinkered but that gauge wouidn’t work at all.”

TJiey returned to Oakville, feeling certain that the level gauge fiasco had killed all chances of financial assistance from Labatt’s. They re-tested the instrument in their own lab. It worked perfectly again. Finally they determined that the cold temperature of Labatt’s storage room had prevented the electronic portion of the instrument from operating properly. It was a trivial defect, easy to correct, but they were too embarrassed to contact Labatt’s again.

AG this point Isotope Products Ltd. was practically finished. There were many other instruments they were sure could be developed, but it would need time and money and they barely had enough money now to pay the rent. They worked for another couple of weeks on early forms of what later became their betameter. During this period Alcock’s wife discovered one Monday morning that someone had stolen the wringer from her washing machine. Alcock admitted sheepishly that he had had to borrow it for their betameter. Mrs. Alcock never got it back. The first betameter they later sold still had the wringer built into it.

Brunton advised Stewart and Maskell to learn if their old Chalk River jobs were still available. He said he and Alcock would wait one more month before throwing in the towel.

But before Stewart and Maskell were ready to leave, Brunton received a telephone call from a Labatt’s executive. The Labatt’s board of directors, then in session, had been discussing the , Oakville company and the board had decided that it would like to interview I PL’s bosses. Brunton hung up the phone and yelled. He, Alcock, Stewart and Maskell dashed around, got their suits cleaned and pressed, their hair cut, and next day the four of them were ushered nervously before the i Labatt’s board.

The cha'rman told them that Laj batt’s looked upon isotope instruments as a development that might become of great importance in the future. He said Labatt’s was willing to encourage it now in its experimental period, and asked how much money they needed. Brunton asked for forty thousand dollars.

The chairman’s brow wrinkled. He tapped the table with his fingers. Brunton’s hopes slumped. He had asked for too much.

"Forty thousand,” the chairman repeated. "You can’t build a plant and equip xt for that. Have you allowed for your own salaries for a year?” (Brunton shook his head.) "And depreciation, a sales staff . . . ?”

Brunton and his three partners realized suddenly that they were being bargained up, not down! An hour later they walked out with a guarantee of one hundred and ten thousand dollars under a deal that still left them in control of their company.

Isotope Products Ltd. was on its j way. And one of the first expenditures under its unaccustomed solvency was a j new wringer for Mrs. Alcock’s washing j machine. ★