Part II : 1950 -1957

4. Hydrogen Technology from Thermonuclear Research



National Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory


[66] The development of the hydrogen bomb gave the National Bureau of Standards the opportunity to establish itself as the leader in cryogenic engineering research during the 1950s. The bureau had been involved with liquid hydrogen and cryogenic research since purchasing its first liquefier from the British Oxygen Company in 1904.13 In 1925, Frederick G. Brickwedde became head of the cryogenic laboratory in the heat and power division, a post he held until 1957. He distilled liquid hydrogen to obtain a sample of deuterium for Harold Urey in 1931 (appendix A-3). In 1947, Brickwedde and William Gifford began a cryogenic engineering project. Some years earlier, Professor Samuel C. Collins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had designed a helium cryostat, which was being produced and marketed by the Arthur D. Little Company as the ADL-Collins cryostat. It had a capacity of about 4 liters of liquid helium per hour, which was ample for most university research needs, but Brickwedde wanted a cryostat of greater capacity. He and Gifford, working with the Arthur D. Little Company, designed one with a capacity five times greater than the ADL-Collins cryostat. It was placed into operation in 1952. From the summer of 1948, Brickwedde visited the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory as a consultant. There he worked with Edward F. Hammel, head of the cryogenic laboratory, and E. R. Grilly. In 1949, Hammel began....


group photo of researchers

[67] Fig. 12. Dr. Herrick L. Johnston and staff who installed the cryogenic facilities at Eniwetok for Operation Ivy. Front row, L to R: Lester Cox, Ross Justus, Man Treziaki, Gwynne Wright, Herrick Johnston, Al Sesonskin McGill, Richard Reo, James Pierce; middle row: George Koch, Mike Nicata, Raymond Ward, Everett Allen, Paul Hansel, Nip Nunimaker, William Johnston, Richard White, Dewey Sandell: top row: Paul Camky, Charles Ames, Dave Wood, Howard Altman, Nate Hallet, Leon Wagner, Clarence Cunningham-------Groves, Douglas Chapin, Art Kurz, Jay Alberti. (Photo courtesy of James Pierce, identifications by Gwynne Wright.)


[68] .....suggesting that the country needed a single large national laboratory for cryogenic engineering. He formed a committee of advisors on cryogenic engineering that included Manson Benedick, Brickwedde, Samuel Collins, Herrick Johnston, Earl Long, and Darrell Osborne. This group discussed Hammel's idea for a laboratory and supported it. 14


The Bureau of Standards had become pinched for space in Washington and had decided to locate its expanding radio facility elsewhere. In 1949, the citizens of Boulder, Colorado, donated a 0.9-square-kilometer tract at the foothills of the Rockies for the facility. All these events might have remained unconnected except that Truman's decision to go forward with the hydrogen bomb put considerable support behind Hammel's suggestion for a cryogenic laboratory. The Atomic Energy Commission selected the Bureau of Standards to build and operate a cryogenic engineering laboratory at the Boulder site. In the summer of 1951, the Stearns-Roger Manufacturing Company began construction and within a year, two buildings were completed-one for the hydrogen and nitrogen liquefiers and another for research. Brickwedde and Gifford became the first members of the staff. By March 1952 liquid hydrogen was being produced and by August the laboratories were open.15 The NBS-AEC Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory, with Dr. Russell B. Scott as its first chief, was in full swing in the fast-moving preparations for the hydrogen bomb development.


The gas liquefaction capacity was 350 liters per hour of liquid normal hydrogen (or 240 liters per hour of liquid parahydrogen) and 480 liters per hour of liquid nitrogen: storage capacity was 4500 liters of liquid hydrogen and 22 000 liters of liquid nitrogen. It was the largest liquid hydrogen plant in the country and started operation less than three years after the Aerojet liquefier. built for hydrogen rocket experiments, closed down. By 1954, the Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory had an extensive program that included: (1) precise measurement of the thermal conductivities of metals and dielectrics, (2) mechanical properties of materials at low temperatures. (3) superinsulations, (4) high vacuum techniques, (5) transfer of liquefied gases, (6) development of vessels for storage and transport of liquid hydrogen, (7) ortho- to parahydrogen conversion, (8) hydrogen liquefiers and pilot plant evaluation, and (9) cryogenic testing, particularly with respect to vibration.16