The Sound of Science

Celebrating 80 Years: Meeting the Needs of a Changing World

Meeting the Needs of a Changing World

In the first part of our 80th anniversary series, you heard how the Manhattan Project helped end World War II with the development and use of the world’s first nuclear weapons. The success of this top-secret endeavor ushered in a new era of nuclear science. The expertise used to build the atomic bombs was applied in peacetime to a range of nuclear-inspired research. This research would spawn significant advances in existing fields like chemistry and materials science, and establish completely new ones like neutron scattering and health physics. In this episode, we'll explore the lab's growth and evolution in the decades that followed the war.




ALAN ICENHOUR:  We owe a lot to the people that went before us that laid the groundwork to that that little Graphite Reactor. And the people that had the vision to do more with it. 


BILL CABAGE: You can imagine in years after the war, atomic energy was new, with all kinds of promise, and the sky was the limit. 


MICHELLE BUCHANAN: They just instilled into us this passion for science. And you go, I hope when I'm 70, I still have that passion that they did. 




JENNY: Hello everyone and welcome to “The Sound of Science,” the podcast highlighting the voices behind the breakthroughs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  


MORGAN/JENNY: We’re your hosts, Morgan McCorkle and Jenny Woodbery.  




MORGAN: In the first part of our 80th anniversary series, you heard how the Manhattan Project helped end World War II with the development and use of the world’s first nuclear weapons. 


JENNY: The success of this top-secret endeavor also ushered in a new era of nuclear science.   


MORGAN: The expertise used to build the atomic bombs was now being applied in peacetime to a range of nuclear-inspired research.  


JENNY: This research would spawn significant advances in existing fields like chemistry and materials science, and establish completely new ones like neutron scattering and health physics. 


ALAN ICENHOUR: After the war, it was recognized what a great capability that had been established, that combined academics, scientists along with industry focused on compelling, challenging problems. And what a resource that had been established not only here at Oak Ridge, but at other locations around the country. And that really was memorialized under the Atomic Energy Act, which really serves as even today for the foundation of how we exist and work. And under that act, then we were focused more on the peaceful uses of this new technology that had been developed, which I think's just a tremendous outcome is that even though the technology was originally established, focused on weapons and war, it was recognized that there were many useful applications for this technology that are for the betterment of us all. 


JENNY: That’s Alan Icenhour, whose voice you may recognize from the last episode. He’s ORNL’s former deputy for operations, who recently retired after 32 years at the lab. 


MORGAN: Even before the war ended, scientists at the X-10 site – the nexus of what later became Oak Ridge National Laboratory – began experimenting with the capabilities of the Graphite Reactor.  


JENNY: And as a quick recap, the Graphite Reactor served as the proof-of-concept that plutonium could be made from uranium in a nuclear reaction. Lessons from the Graphite Reactor informed construction of the B Reactor in Hanford, Washington, which would make the material used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. 

MORGAN: Early science done at the Graphite Reactor resulted in the creation of new isotopes for medical use; the discovery of promethium, a new element on the periodic table; and the development of a groundbreaking technique called neutron scattering. All of which remain among ORNL’s signature research capabilities today. 

JENNY: The Graphite Reactor was also home to the first demonstration of nuclear-powered electricity. 


ICENHOUR: When you have an opportunity to go tour the Graphite Reactor, there's a small steam engine there, and that was used in probably an unauthorized experiment. But the heat from the reactor heated the water that was turned to steam that went through this little steam engine, and then it lit up a little flashlight bulb, and you say big deal. But when you reflect on that when that was done in the late 1940s. Again, the neutron was discovered in 1932. Late 1930s, fission, and here we are, it was less than 10 years later, that neutron caused fission that caused, that result in heat that causes steam, that was then converted to electricity in that short span of time. And I mean, that whole arc of innovation is just a fascinating story. 


MORGAN: The versatility of the Graphite Reactor proved to be a launching point for what would become the lab we know today. 


ICENHOUR: We owe a lot to the people that went before us that laid the groundwork, to that that little Graphite Reactor and everything that was done there. And the people that had the vision to do more with it. And I love looking at the aerial view of the laboratory, because the Graphite Reactor still exists. And you can see it in those aerial views – and then you look at everything that's grown out from it, much like all these lines of scientific discovery that you can trace back, just the whole lab. But in the middle of the lab, there's that small Graphite Reactor, and then you can just reflect on the influence it’s had, eight decades later. 


JENNY: In this episode, we’ll be exploring that growth and evolution in the decades that followed the war. And while we can’t touch on every milestone, we hope you’ll enjoy these highlights and stories from the lab’s history. 




MORGAN: After the war ended, a new federal agency called the Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC, was created to manage the development of nuclear energy for both military and civilian purposes. 

JENNY: The AEC gave new life to the Manhattan Project sites that had been established across the country. 

MORGAN: At ORNL - known at the time as Clinton Laboratories - theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner was chosen to lead the lab’s new scientific mission.  


JENNY: While the future Nobel laureate would only serve as the lab’s research director for a year, Wigner charted the course for the lab’s peacetime mission. During his tenure, the lab established a nuclear training school, planned for the construction of more powerful research reactors, and established divisions for biology and solid-state research to investigate the effects of radiation. 


MORGAN: When Wigner left the lab to return to academic life, reactor physicist Alvin Weinberg took his place as research director and later became laboratory director.  


JENNY: Weinberg had worked with Wigner on the development of the Chicago Pile and Graphite Reactor, and, like Wigner, he was eager to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy.  


MORGAN: During his nearly 30 years at the lab, Weinberg was an important visionary in the new nuclear era and oversaw the design and construction of seven more nuclear reactors.  


BILL CABAGE: You can imagine in years after the war, and atomic energy was new, and with all kinds of promise, and the sky was the limit, almost literally, with what you could do with atomic energy.  


JENNY: That’s Bill Cabage. He’s been a public information officer at ORNL for more than 33 years.  


MORGAN: A natural-born storyteller with an extensive knowledge of the lab, Bill's the person you go to for an ORNL history lesson. 


JENNY: So, we asked him to tell us about a unique nuclear project the lab took on in the late ’40s that never quite got off the ground. 


CABAGE: Of course, we had a nuclear submarine, and ships that were nuclear-powered. Someone had the idea in the Air Force, to equip a bomber with a nuclear reactor on it to propel it and this nuclear-powered airplane could conceivably remain in the air for very extended periods of time, which would provide a pretty effective nuclear deterrent. When I came here in 1990, there were still lots of folks around who had worked on this project, to the ORNL activities that were associated with nuclear-powered airplane. 


MORGAN: And if you’re thinking a nuclear-powered airplane seems bit farfetched, you’re not the only one. Alvin Weinberg himself wasn’t convinced but saw an opportunity to further position the lab as a leader in nuclear science. 


CABAGE: In 1995, the American Nuclear Society named the Tower Shielding Reactor, which was one of the facilities that was built for this project, a Nuclear Historic Landmark. And they had a little meeting over in the Tower Shielding Facility, over in another part of the reservation. And a lot of people came to it. I remember it was a barbecue; Alvin Weinberg was there and he talked about it. I remember him saying this when that they said they were going to try to build a nuclear-powered airplane. And he thought it was a silly idea that putting a nuclear reactor on an airplane. For one thing, reactors are heavy, and the Graphite Reactor, is as big as a building itself, with concrete, and then they call them swimming pool reactors were big tubs of water. Imagine that on the airplane. He thought the idea of a nuclear-powered airplane was almost an oxymoron. But then the Air Force said we've got about a billion dollars to study the feasibility of this, and Weinberg was very determined to keep ORNL at the forefront of nuclear reactor development and engineering, he said, “Oh, there's all kinds of things we can do for you for this for this project.”  


JENNY: To take off, this ambitious project would require extensive research into shielding, heat transfer, lightweight materials and radiation effects.  


MORGAN: The Tower Shielding Facility that Bill mentioned was by far one of the lab’s most unique efforts that came out of the nuclear aircraft project.  


JENNY: The site featured four 315-foot towers with a network of cables strung between them that could hoist a nuclear reactor into the air to study aircraft shielding materials and configurations.  


CABAGE: You had to have shielding to protect the crews, so we did a lot of shielding science, lightweight materials, because you've got to get the thing in the air. So, you had to develop new materials to do this and health physics studies that were done to protect the crew.  


JENNY: And while a nuclear-powered aircraft never took flight, the program produced valuable science that helped propel the lab into its post-war future.  


CABAGE: As time went along, and we did all this work, and a nuclear-powered airplane never flew. And there's several reasons for that. One was the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile made the whole concept fairly obsolete. But the lightweight materials work we did became very relevant a few decades later, when we had an energy crisis. And we for instance, one example had to start building our vehicles that were more energy efficient. And one way to make cars and trucks more energy efficient is to build them out of lighter materials so that the work we did there gained much relevance. Mammalian genetic studies we did for the health studies culminated in several discoveries, including the X-ray exposure limitations for pregnant women, were one of the outcomes and the determination of the role of the Y chromosome in sex determination. So, there's no bad science and the nuclear airplane project --we talk about, what was the science done for nothing? Absolutely not. In fact, we're still doing this science today. 




MORGAN: Let’s fast forward to the 1970s, when the United States was facing an unprecedented energy crisis. 


JENNY: The U.S. had largely been dependent on coal-generated power for electricity and heat up until this time, but there was a fast-growing demand for petroleum for transportation and other energy uses, which was primarily supplied from foreign nations. 


MORGAN: In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, declared an oil embargo on the U.S., sending gas prices through the roof.  


JENNY: In the spirit of the Manhattan Project, President Richard Nixon launched Project Independence, which would rely on American science, technology and industry to break the United States’ dependence on foreign oil by 1980. 


MICHELLE BUCHANAN: This nation for the first time found out how vulnerable it was to sit out and not have any cheap, available resources for energy, that we were dependent on foreign supplies. And so, when the oil embargoes came, long lines, people were scared to go anyplace. I remember I was in graduate school at the time, and I was going to Madison, Wisconsin, and we plotted the best way to go, where we could save gasoline, you know, it was 500 miles, you know, and we went through the backroads of Iowa, because we figured we could go at a decent pace and not have to worry about traffic.  


JENNY: That’s Michelle Buchanan. She is one of the scientists the lab recruited to help tackle this new challenge. 

MORGAN: Because coal was plentiful, researchers looked for ways to turn it into liquid fuel to supplement imported petroleum. Using chemical processes, scientists could convert it to liquid or gas to create a synthetic fuel. This increased interest led to fundamental studies of the structure and properties of coal.  


MICHELLE BUCHANAN: When I interviewed here, my professor told me, why are you going to Oak Ridge, it's a nuclear lab. And my background was in the organic side of chemistry. And I saw it, I was being recruited to join in on this, this toxicity of coal liquids. Well, interestingly, probably more than any other laboratory, we had more background because of the biology that was going on in organic chemistry and organic materials. And so, we were able to slide right on in there. And a lot of the work that was done when I first came to the lab was on toxicology of these oils, trying to see if they would actually work in an engine. These things are very corrosive, because they have a lot of sulfur and oxygen and other heteroatoms that cause them to be corrosive. And I remember the material science enterprise here in the old M&C division-- there were a couple of people who actually tried to figure out why they couldn't have these big condenser columns that they use to refine oils, it would burn out a column, just eat through the column within days. And so a lot of our material scientists were engaged in understanding why that was happening. And I got involved with it. It was a chemistry -- it was an all-hands-on-deck, you know, trying to figure out this, this work.  


JENNY: Materials challenges weren't the only problem to overcome. ORNL research revealed the conversion of coal to liquid or gas at that time could lead to adverse health effects.  


BUCHANAN: There were people trying to understand where the toxicity of these materials came from. And there was a woman in the environmental science division, who studied crickets, and she had exposed cricket eggs to a very weak solution of coal liquids, it was a coal liquid that had been extracted with water, and it was the supernatant water that was sprinkled on just on the eggs left, let them stay there for a couple days. And these crickets hatched with two heads, three eyes, multiple antennae, and it was a teratogen. So if you let that that breed into next generation, it had no genetic effects. So, it was just a teratogenic effect. But we were able to identify using our technologies that we had here at the laboratory. That compound was one of 10,000 in a coal liquid. It was there at very low levels. And we were able to identify with some of the new tools that we had developed, that needle in a haystack. It was it was really cool. But it was because of the capabilities that we developed in the mass spectrometry group, which was one of the strongest enterprises here in analytical sciences during that time, to be able to put those tools to use. 


MORGAN: Much as nuclear scientists saw a chance to expand into new fields after World War II, as the energy crisis stabilized, Michelle and her colleagues began to apply the mass spectrometry tools and techniques they’d developed to different research challenges and on a larger scale. 


BUCHANAN: We went back and started developing more tools to be able to get more information out for applications in environmental science, in materials science and in biology. One of the things that I see is, that has perpetuated itself across the laboratory. When you look at the early 1970s, there wasn't very many analytical instruments out in the lab, it was all centralized in a division called the analytical chemistry division. And that was the division that I hired into. And they hired experts, you know, domain experts who would have these huge instruments, a mass spectrometer would fill up a 10 by 12 room, big, big instruments, very expensive. And they would hire a domain expert to come in and run samples for people because you couldn't afford to do it. And secondly, you had to be an expert in order to figure it out. And as time went on, and we developed new analytical techniques, the thing that really helped things was the computerization. And so, computerization basically democratized analytical instrumentation.  


JENNY: Michelle describes how the adoption of computers transformed science over the course of her 45-year career at ORNL. 


BUCHANAN: Very few instruments were computerized. And the first mass spectrometer I got was a commercial instrument, and it had a disk drive on it, which you have to stand back and laugh, but it was the size of a washing machine. It had a cake platter, if you think of the cover that you put on a cake after you bake it, it was probably 10 inches tall. And it would screw down on to this platter, which was seven layers thick. And so it was seven little thin disk drives all together, it was 20 megabytes. Unbelievable that it was so exciting that the people in the computing division had never seen one. And they all came over to see it and we had the fanciest drive in town. But what that did is it made it available to take data at incredible speeds and collect it and save it. Because before what you'd have to do is take little time slices through your data, and everything else got thrown away. And so you got very poor information. So going back to that cricket example, we were able to look at 10,000 data, look across 10,000 separate compounds as they eluded off of a chromatographic column and get that data. And that has revolutionized microscopy and other techniques. And now we're at the point where we don't just use cartoons to describe how our science evolves. So, it's really changed and that was something that I think the laboratory was extremely well positioned for. 


JENNY: As the first woman to join the lab’s leadership team – first as the associate laboratory director for the physical sciences directorate and then as the deputy for Science and Technology —Michelle’s research and leadership has made a significant impact on the lab.  


MORGAN: She’s currently on special assignment as senior technical advisor to the deputy director for science programs in DOE’s Office of Science. 

JENNY: We asked her to reflect back on her earliest memories of joining ORNL. 


BUCHANAN: It was an interesting place. Because the analytical chemistry division had world leading instrumentation. It was just really obvious that there was a lot of good people here. I didn’t know much about the lab at that time. It was a great place to jump in and a lot of the work I did was in collaboration with people in other disciplines. It was a very invigorating environment, and interestingly enough, there were a lot of people left from the Manhattan Project. So, there were people in their ‘60s and ‘70s, who just loved science. These guys would tell stories about famous people and great studies that they did here. They just loved this place. and it was just, it was just great. You could just get the culture, just knew that this was a wonderful place to work just because these people had so much passion for it. They just instilled into us this passion for science. And you go, you know, I hope when I'm 70, I still have that passion that they did you know that they really love doing science, it was just something that they wanted to do, and just wanted to pass that on to people. I think that was great. 




JENNY: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Sound of Science. 


MORGAN: We hope you enjoyed this episode and will subscribe so you don’t miss the final installment of this special series for the 80th anniversary where we explore the lab’s modernization and discuss what the next 80 years holds. 


JENNY: Until next time!