The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

Part IV: The Manhattan Engineer District in Operation

Seaborg and Plutonium Chemistry

While the Met Lab labored to make headway on pile design, Glenn Seaborg and his coworkers tried to gain enough information about transuranium chemistry to insure that plutonium produced could be successfully extracted from the irradiated uranium. Using lanthanum fluoride as a carrier, Seaborg isolated a weighable sample of plutonium in August 1942. At the same time, Isadore Perlman and William J. Knox explored the peroxide method of separation; John E. Willard studied various materials to determine which best adsorbed plutonium;36 Theodore T. Magel and Daniel K. Koshland, Jr., researched solvent-extraction processes; and Harrison S. Brown and Orville F. Hill performed experiments into volatility reactions. Basic research on plutonium's chemistry continued as did work on radiation and fission products.

Seaborg's discovery and subsequent isolation of plutonium were major events in the history of chemistry, but, like Fermi's achievement, it remained to be seen whether they could be translated into a production process useful to the bomb effort. In fact, Seaborg's challenge seemed even more daunting, for while piles had to be scaled up ten to twenty times, a separation plant for plutonium would involve a scale-up of the laboratory experiment on the order of a billion-fold.

Collaboration with DuPont's Charles M. Cooper and his staff on plutonium separation facilities began even before Seaborg succeeded in isolating a sample of plutonium. Seaborg was reluctant to drop any of the approaches then under consideration, and Cooper agreed. The two decided to pursue all four methods of plutonium separation but put first priority on the lanthanum fluoride process Seaborg had already developed. Cooper's staff ran into problems with the lanthanum fluoride method in late 1942, but by then Seaborg had become interested in phosphate carriers. Work led by Stanley G. Thompson found that bismuth phosphate retained over ninety-eight percent plutonium in a precipitate. With bismuth phosphate as a backup for the lanthanum fluoride, Cooper moved ahead on a semiworks near Stagg Field.

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