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The Controversy of a Potential Hafnium Bomb 499

Posted by Hemos
from the what-a-glowing-debate dept.
deglr6328 writes "Physics Today has a report detailing the surprisingly heated controversy surrounding the usually sober science of nuclear isomers (the Washington Post has run a less scientifically rigorous version). Since the 70's it has been known that the specific "m2" isomer of Hafnium-178 has an extraordinarily long half life of 31 years (nuclear isomers usually have half-lives on orders of pico or nanoseconds) and on decaying, emits high energy gamma rays at ~2.5 Mev. The prospect of energy storage and rapid release in Hf-178 for the puropse of creating large energy stores, bombs and even exotic gamma ray lasers did not escape the interest of Reagan era Star Wars researchers and was seriously studied for a time during SDI's heyday, but was eventually abandoned after being considered unfeasible. Then, in 1999, Carl Collins at the Univ. of Texas Center for Quantum Electronics reported inducing energy release from Hf-178 by bombarding a sample with X-rays (from a dental machine no less). Immediately, comments about the article were submitted, pointing out inconsistencies with basic nuclear theory and the controversy has only grown since then, with claims and counter-claims of flawed experimental design, incompetence and irrational theories in feuds reminiscent of the cold fusion debacle of the late 80's. It's seeming more unlikely as the arguments drag on, but if a Hafnium bomb could be built, it is thought that a golf ball sized chunk could produce the energy equivalent of 10 tons of conventional explosives."
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The Controversy of a Potential Hafnium Bomb

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  • by mfh (56) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:35AM (#9093356) Journal
    > a golf ball sized chunk could produce the energy equivalent of 10 tons of conventional explosives

    What if journalists and scientists agree to only discuss the *positive* uses of scientific invention? That way, some uneducated terrorists from The Great Wherever won't get new ideas using Google keyword searches like "explosives", "bombs", "nukes". You know the phrase, When in Rome; I think it could apply to science! If we just conceal the potentials for violence, we may avoid these practices somewhat. But much of the scientific community has a love affair with death, it seems. Why? The death-dealing potential of any scientific invention is proportionately equivalent to the fundraising influence of said project; yet science should be a noble pursuit, IMHO, not a monetary one. Sadly, the two (money and science) are inseparable with the high cost of equipment, facilities and so forth, compounded by the need for science by the powerful, as a method of retaining power and building power. One day, it's going to be a lot simpler.
    • by DrEldarion (114072) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:39AM (#9093385)
      If the terrorists have the resources and contacts available to get materials make a nuclear weapon, chances are that they aren't going to be getting ideas from the newspaper.
      • by xyloplax (607967) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:46AM (#9093440)
        After 9/11 I thought to myself "Hmm, now we know they don't have nukes"
        • Yeah, I had the exact same thought that day. I always expected the Big Hit to come if they got their hands on a loose nuke. One of the few comforts of the days after 9/11 was that it seemed like that they had tipped their hand too early -- that now we would go after them with Extreme Prejudice and grind al Qaeda into dust before they ever got that chance.

          Of course, that was all before we decided to drop everything and go after Saddam Hussein... now we've given them a nice breather to start working on fi

        • by Anonymous Bullard (62082) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @05:00PM (#9095579) Homepage
          After 091101 I've kept wondering when and if americans might eventually begin asking themselves "why are they so angry at us".

          So far there's only been jingoistic kneejerk reaction a la "let's kill every last one of 'em".

          What comes to those nukes "they" don't have, we're barely half a century into the nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction era. The US has an arsenal of some 7,000 nuclear warheads - all far more powerful than those deployed against the two japanese cities - capable of hitting any and all targets around the world in just minutes. In addition to the US, Russia, China and even UK are all either occupying their neighbours or invading some distant foreign country "pre-emptively". All these security council seat holding nuclear states are acting against basic humanitarian principles, simply because they currently can. On a mutual "wink & nod" basis. All that matters is business, acquisition of foreign resources and plain old generating of patriotic fever. In none of these four aggressive states (although the UK isn't yet a lost cause) are the people actively organizing themselves to stop these practises which are the root cause of "terrorism" (aka "fight for freedom").

          50-60 years is a very short time in the timescale of human civilization. In another generation or two the people fighting foreign invasions and occupations may well be capable of building true WMDs and delivering them to capital cities, along with ultimatums to pull out or else... Will the political leaders of that time be capable of realizing and correcting the root causes of such desperate measures, or will they still be stuck to the current "nuclear superpowers can do anything they wish" doctrine of today?

          In my opinion, all actions, including those against foreign people, should pass the simple test of "would I mind someone else doing that to me?".

    • Haven't you heard? Information wants to be free.
    • If the terrorist are ever going to use a nuke they are going to have to buy it.

      While building an atomic bomb is not that hard, there are parts that would take quite a bit of work to perfect. Such as making sure the shockwave reached the core from the explosive charges at the same time. If you are off by a nanosecond from any of the charges....no joy.

      Making an H bomb is even harder. Unless they purchase one the only nuke they will likely ever use is a dirty bomb.
      • by Twirlip of the Mists (615030) <twirlipofthemists@yahoo.com> on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:28AM (#9093671)
        Don't overestimate the difficulty of building a working nuclear device. Remember: a small group of what were basically graduate students were able to build a city-buster bomb in the middle of a desert with access to only 1940's-era technology, and not really that much of it.

        Go check out the satellite pictures of Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan pre-November, 2001, and notice how similar they look, from a distance, to Los Alamos circa late 1944.
        • by tigersha (151319) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:50AM (#9093806) Homepage
          The difficulty of building a nuclear bomb lies in making it small. It is true what you say about grad studdents building one in a desert in the 1940's, BUT

          a) most of the effort (by faaar most of it) went into enriching Uranium and making Plutonium. The effort expended to do that involved the largest industrial project in the world at the time. I once heard that a large part of the silver in the Fort Knox was melted to make electromagnetic coils for the enrichment process.

          Of course, that effort has been expended and the world is now full of Plutonium and they could buy some. Interetingly, btw, one country nobody moans about who certainly has more than enough Plutonium on hand to build lots of nuclear devices is Japan. They certainly have the expertise too.

          b) The two bombs were pretty large. Ok, you could park one on a container ship and float it into New York Harbour or detonate it in San Franciso Bay or in the Thames estuary but nobody is going to carry one of those 1940's devices around just like that.

          Anyways, the difficulty does not lie in building the device, the difficulty lies in making an actualy deployable weapon.

          • by tiger99 (725715) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @08:04PM (#9096664)
            Yes, but these guys had virtually no computers to support their work. Nowadays anyone can build a Beowulf cluster, but I suspect that if you are not in too much of a hurry, a standard PC is capable of simulating lots of things that the Manhattan Project team could only guess at, or measure by a series of tedious experiments. Also, much more is known about explosives nowadays, "simple" shaped charge theory should be sufficient to get a spherical implosion, the rest apart from the neutron source to ensure efficent explosion, is fairly straightforward using published information.

            One evil genius and a small team of good technicians could do it, given the plutonium. A basic weapon would not need to be all that much bigger than the plutonium core, depending on how fast the detonation velocity of the conventional explosive is. The yield-enhancement features which make the thing much bigger would not be too important to a terrorist. In fact, a low explosive yield, tons rather than kilotons, of TNT equivalent, might be of more use to a terrorist, AFAIK the fall-out from unreacted plutonium etc would be very much worse, and the area might be uninhabitable for a very long time. Apparently there was minimal fallout in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, people were mostly injured or killed by radiation absorbed by their bodies in the few microseconds of the blast, although the horrific deaths are probably continuing to this day. I strongly suspect that a low-yield weapon in a modern city would kill a lot more people, maybe a few hundred by blast and direct radiation, but a million might inhale plutonium dust before they could be evacuated, all of them would die, mostly of lung cancer.

            However,if you want to get it past radiation detectors, you have to do a lot more, although AFAIK most of the output from the plutonium, and probably the polonium in the initiator, is alpha and easily stopped.

            But, my guess is that an inexperienced team who could get sufficient plutonium might try a cylindrical configuration, it might be even easier to get the simulations correct, and it might fit more easily in a briefcase, but it would use more material.

            As computers are widespread, and everything you need to know to build a weapon is published (why that was ever allowed, I don't understand!), the only means of control is to restrict the circulation of plutonium. It makes me sick to think that enough for maybe 50 or 100 weapons has simply been allowed to go missing over the years. Much of it might simply be lost, not in the hands of the wrong people, but where is it, and who is it polluting?

            I would be even more worried if large amounts of U235 went missing, an idiot could make a uranium bomb using published information, nothing remotely high-tech is required, but that one would be heavy. Even worse, a suicidal maniac with 2 pieces of U235 could create a "fizzle" with no extra hardware, it would kill a lot of people if used in a crowded place such as a city. Note that the Hiroshima bomb was untested, they knew it must work, even in 1945, with no simulation. The test at Alamogordo was for the plutonium bomb used on Nagasaki.

            BTW you are right about the silver in Fort Knox, but it got recycled afterwards, and was used because of a wartime shortage of copper. I don't think a terrorist would go that route, they would not need a uranium enrichment plant for a plutonium weapon, AFAIK plutonium is "relatively" easily separated from used reactor fuel rods by a chemical process. But, stealing used fuel rods would be suicidal, and it would need very elaborate robotic handling to be able to do the processing. I think that any makeshift processing facility would leak so much radiation that it would soon be discovered.

            I think that society as a whole needs to think about installing many more radiation detectors (they can be cheap and unobtrusive) so that unauthorised movements of radioactive materials will be spotted. They will also help prevent accidents such as the one in the US some years ago when a cobalt source was melted d

            • You know, I'm rabidly against cameras in public places, watching me.

              But I truly like the idea of these. I can't imagine any argument against them, and for once, it might be a good use of my tax dollars. Why the hell aren't they putting these at every street corner?
        • by Smidge204 (605297) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @12:32PM (#9094057) Journal
          Remember: a small group of what were basically graduate students were able to build a city-buster bomb in the middle of a desert with access to only 1940's-era technology, and not really that much of it.

          Funny, 'cause I've heard it took about 90 PhD level physicists [childrenof...roject.org], many of which were Nobel Prize recipiants.

          Maybe you're confusing the real Manhattan Project with the movie "The Manhattan Project" [imdb.com]?

          Go check out the satellite pictures of Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan pre-November, 2001, and notice how similar they look, from a distance, to Los Alamos circa late 1944.

          Go check out the satellite pictures of Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan pre-November, 2001, and notice how similar they look to a generic group of buildings [globalsecurity.org]!

          =Smidge=
    • by dcsmith (137996) * on Saturday May 08, 2004 @12:08PM (#9093899) Homepage
      That way, some uneducated terrorists from The Great Wherever won't get new ideas using Google keyword searches like "explosives", "bombs", "nukes".

      Security through obscurity?

  • What is Hafnium? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:36AM (#9093360)
    Find out here! [wikipedia.org]
  • by Alexis Brooke (662281) <alexisbrooke AT adelphia POINT net> on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:38AM (#9093373) Homepage
    It's seeming more unlikely as the arguments drag on, but if a Hafnium bomb could be built, it is thought that a golf ball sized chunk could produce the energy equivalent of 10 tons of conventional explosives.

    I'm assuming they'll not be using this material to make golf balls...
    • by DrEldarion (114072) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:45AM (#9093426)
      Although that would be a convenient way to "take care of" an annoying boss...

      "Happy birthday, sir! These are wonderful, you must try them out as soon as possible!"
    • Watch for them building sandtraps around important buildings--and outlawing 7-irons.
    • Finally! The suitcase nuke [tech-associates.com] will no longer be just a, paranoid, dream.
      • by TGK (262438) <Killfile@Nephand u s .Com> on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:58AM (#9093841) Homepage Journal
        It's generaly accepted [mosnews.com] that the Soviet Union built a small number of so called "Suit Case" nukes in the latter years of the cold war.

        Of course, the term is a misnomer, because the intelligence community mis-translated "Backpack Nuke" into "Suitcase Nuke."

        KGB documents indicate that the Soviet Union kept one such device in the basement of the Soviet Embassy in DC to use as a decapitation weapon in the event of nuclear hostilities.

        Suitcase nuke, in any case, refers simply to a small nuclear weapon theoretically made man portable, or at least small enough to easily secure within a car's trunk. The United States produced a fair number of these weapons, though they were never fashioned (to the best of my knowledge) into a form intended for covert deployment. The most famous such miniaturized nuclear weapon was the Davy Crocket [3ad.us], a low yield nuclear weapon designed for battlefield deployment in Germany in the event of a Soviet tank invasion of Europe.

        Of course, for a halfnium suitcase nuke to be built you'd need a compact X-ray source that could discharge a fair quantity of X-ray's before being blown apart by the halfnium discharge, in otherwords you'd need a fission bomb... which kind of invalidates the entire point.
  • by ObviousGuy (578567) <ObviousGuy@hotmail.com> on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:41AM (#9093394) Homepage Journal
    While I think that Voyager is quite below par for the entire Star Trek series, the skin tight spandex outfits that Kate Mulgrew wears draws me back.

    But anyway, the crew had just found out about a so-called "Omega particle". The particle contained as much energy in one molecule of it as a neutron star had in its entirety.

    Eventually they found a race of aliens who had been able to replicate the particle as well as contain it somewhat. Somewhat, because by the time Voyager got there the particle had escaped and blown up the laboratory.

    Since this particle could be used for ultimate evil by anyone who had the predilection to use it in such a way, Starfleet HQ had deemed it illegal and set up regulations that required the immediate destruction of the particle if encountered.

    The problem is that the energy from even a single molecule of the stuff could provide enough energy to sustain the life of a planet for hundreds of thousands of years.

    So I look at this debate over the efficacy of the Hafnium bomb and wonder to myself why it is that humans have this innate need to develop weapons that possess this much power. Why do we see the drawbacks to new technology faster than the benefits? If the Hafnium technology could provide us with such a cheap power source that lasted generations, it makes sense to pursue a course of action that allowed us to take advantage of it.

    Shame on the warmongers who would use it to kill other humans.
    • cause they still haven't told you about the huge mothership that's coming... we gotta have something beeter than nukes (they *never* work in movies) ;)
    • comment summary : skin tight spandex outfits ... Kate Mulgrew

      The first one of this [google.com] result is the one you need
    • So I look at this debate over the efficacy of the Hafnium bomb and wonder to myself why it is that humans have this innate need to develop weapons that possess this much power. Why do we see the drawbacks to new technology faster than the benefits?

      Simple.
      Military is willing to spend a fortune on speculative R&D where most companies and agencies would not. This means that the military gets the toys sooner than the rest. Military spent a fortune to harness atomic energy and later others found uses fo

    • So I look at this debate over the efficacy of the Hafnium bomb and wonder to myself why it is that humans have this innate need to develop weapons that possess this much power.

      You aren't really serious, are you?

      Come on, guys. Let's progress beyond freshman seminar and start thinking about things, okay?

      Those human beings who are presently living are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of culling. Before modern civilization, say 100 years ago or so, life was very hard. It was incredibly easy to fall off of a cliff, or get eaten by a jaguar, or get constipated and die.

      The hard facts of life were exacerbated by the presence of other creatures competing for the same resources our ancestors needed to survive: food and water, mostly, but also the gonads of our fellow human beings. If there's a monkey in that tree, he's going to be able to get to the fruit before you can. If there's a jaguar lurking behind that rock, he's going to be able to get to the monkey. And if there's a human being who's better equipped to kill jaguars, he's going to be able to score more chicks. So great-great-etc.-granddad either responded by figuring out how to kill jaguars, or by figuring out how to kill humans who knew how to kill jaguars. Either one worked.

      Think about it: you are the product of 15,000 successive generations of winners. Red in tooth and claw.

      So, equipped with these facts, you are somehow surprised that people have a natural penchant for creating tools that give them a competitive advantage? Tools like spears and ovens and sunblock and Viagra and wheels and central heating and cruise missiles and the germ theory of medicine and mascara and shoes and the incandescent light bulb and hafnium bombs.

      Use those great big brains, people. They're not just decoration for the top of your spinal cord, you know. Think.

      Understand that human beings are competitive, and that competition includes devising tools to wipe out as many of your fellow human beings as possible. This is, to coin a phrase, "human nature."
      • by ArsSineArtificio (150115) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @12:04PM (#9093879) Homepage
        Those human beings who are presently living are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of culling. Before modern civilization, say 100 years ago or so, life was very hard.

        It's extremely difficult to take seriously someone who believes that "modern civilization" began about 100 years ago. They must have had a lot of trouble arranging the Constitutional Convention or the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, what with all those jaguars wandering in and eating people.

        At least in our post-1904 civilization we've solved the crippling "falling off the cliff" problem.

        • It's extremely difficult to take seriously someone who believes that "modern civilization" began about 100 years ago. They must have had a lot of trouble arranging the Constitutional Convention or the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, what with all those jaguars wandering in and eating people.

          Jaguars weren't a problem in the 1780's or the 1530's, but staph was. So were tuberculosis, tularemia, scurvy, plague, scarlet fever, pneumonia, typhus, cholera, and diphtheria.

          Hell, we don't even have to go back 100 years. Today, the rate of infant mortality is about 8 per 1,000 live births. In the 1940's, just 60 years ago, it was nearly six times that.

          Let's put it this way: throughout human history from about 300,000 years ago to just very recently, the leading causes of death have been trauma and infectious disease.

          Only in the past century has the trend shifted. Today, the leading causes of death in the developed world are all chronic diseases: heart disease, diabetes, cancer. (Statistically, you're still quite likely to die from some kind of trauma, but if you look at all trauma, today you're far more likely to survive an injury that would have killed you even just 20 years ago. God bless the emergency room.)

          Do you know what would happen to you if you broke your arm in 1900? Which, incidentally, you'd be far more likely to do, because you would have had far less calcium in your diet, and your bones would have been far weaker. If you broke your arm and you were very lucky, you would merely be crippled for life. Your barber--unless you were one of the relatively few people who lived in or very near a big city, your barber would be your sole source of medical assistance--would reduce the fracture badly, and the absence of anything like a cast would guarantee that it would not set properly. The result would be a permanent disability.

          If you were slightly less lucky, your fracture would be a compound one. Your wound would get infected. Your barber would tie a piece of not-altogether-clean cloth around your upper arm, then use a short piece of wood to twist the cloth until it constricted your brachial artery. Then he would cut through the muscles, nerves, vessels, and ligaments in your arm until he reached the bone, and then saw through the bone. Meanwhile, you're unable to scream because you've got a piece of rawhide stuck in your mouth, and you're unable to reach out because three strong men are holding you down. The blood that was trapped in your arm spills out onto the sawdust-covered floor; later, that blood-soaked sawdust will be swept up, lofting whatever dire pathogens you might have been host to into the air.

          Of course, if you were only slightly less lucky than that, you'd simply lapse into sepsis and die.

          Don't be so arrogant. Only about four generations separate us from a standard of living that many of us would find to be just barely above proto-humans scrabbling around in the dust.
    • "So I look at this debate over the efficacy of the Hafnium bomb and wonder to myself why it is that humans have this innate need to develop weapons that possess this much power."

      To scare people enough to keep them from wanting to attack you. You're focusing too much on the "weapon" part of "terror weapon" and not enough on the "terror." More than a few people have worked on weapons like this with the intent of making them so frightening to everybody that nobody would want to see them actually "used."

      If
  • Hafnium bullets would give a whole new meaning to armor piercing round. It would also make the motto of "one shot, one kill" obsolete.
  • Hurry!! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Tom7 (102298) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:42AM (#9093405) Homepage Journal
    "... but if a Hafnium bomb could be built, it is thought that a golf ball sized chunk could produce the energy equivalent of 10 tons of conventional explosives."

    Well, damn, we had better get our best minds on that one !!
  • s/puropse/purpose/. You guys need a spellchecker for story submissions. :)
  • How much energy? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bigattichouse (527527) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:42AM (#9093408) Homepage
    Found this online: (about the ~2.5Mev):

    http://www.clavius.org/envsun.html [clavius.org]
    but it takes the equivalent energy of about 620,000,000,000,000 million electron volts (MeV) per second to light up a 100-watt light bulb

    So the question becomes, how much of this stuff (and how big a "battery") would it take to handle all my energy needs, and does the resulting crap that comes out the other end (when it breaks down) pose an unecessary risk to my health or the health of the environment (ie, is there a way to really "seal" the battery)

  • The first thing that pops into my head is long term power - similar to the premise of Star Trek's "Dilythium Crystals." The amount of power in such a tiny size could be used for many useful applications especially in regards to space travel/exploration. If only everyone didn't think about using this immense power to kill each other, we might progress as a society. Oh well.

    artlu [artlu.net]
  • by Camel Pilot (78781) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:45AM (#9093429) Homepage Journal
    I could really improve my golf score with one of those baby's! Every shot is a hole in one - a really big hole....
  • by rodney dill (631059) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:45AM (#9093435) Journal
    than Nonium at all.
  • For the sake of Humanity and all of mankind, if a HF bomb really can create such chaos and destruction, we shouldn't build it.

    The ethical parameters in this issue is clear. The risks are too high, and the destruction devastating.

  • by ValourX (677178) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:47AM (#9093445) Homepage
    ... and the damn prequels still sucked. I guess all the science in the world can't save you from George Lucas. -Jem
  • Hmm.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DiscordOfFive (778099) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:47AM (#9093446) Journal
    This sounds like an argument, with the potential to become a huge debacle, over something that is poorly understood by modern standards. Yeah, IF a bomb of the stuff could be built, it'd be a really effective bomb. But that's like saying if we could make another sun, we'd have lots of light. Maybe it's possible, but I'd bet my chips on not. At least under present tech.
  • by SSJVegeto2001 (630176) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:49AM (#9093457)
    what could be done with a Wholenium...
  • Dimensions (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Daath (225404) <(lp) (at) (coder.dk)> on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:51AM (#9093469) Homepage Journal
    [...] if a Hafnium bomb could be built, it is thought that a golf ball sized chunk could produce the energy equivalent of 10 tons of conventional explosives
    Doesn't that mean that a ten megaton hafniabomb would be the size of one million golf balls? That's pretty big...
    I'm sure I must be wrong :P
    • Doesn't that mean that a ten megaton hafniabomb would be the size of one million golf balls? That's pretty big...

      That would be my assumption as well. Remember a volume of 1 million golf balls would be a sphere 100 times larger than a golf ball - which is maybe a factor of 2 to 4 larger than a 10 MT nuke.

      Anyway, reason for size
      Splitting U-235 releases 207 MeV
      Gamma from Hafnium is 2.45 MeV

  • Red mercury? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ozbird (127571) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:51AM (#9093470)
    These (rather dubious) claims sound awfully like those attributed to red mercury [about.com], a mysterious (and probably mythical) powerful explosive substance. Note point 5 in the linked document, which suggests that "red mercury" may be a codeword for some kind of new nuclear material.

    </tinfoil hat>
  • isotope vs isomer (Score:5, Informative)

    by frankie (91710) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @10:53AM (#9093482) Journal
    For those of us non-nuclear scientists (like me) who thought isomer meant a molecule with different bond orientations (e.g. trans vs cis), here's an explanation [nukeworker.com]: A nuclear isomer [thefreedictionary.com] is a metastable state of an atom caused by the excitation of a proton or neutron in its nucleus so that it requires a change in spin before it can release its extra energy.

    Next question: how the heck do you control the spin of individual baryons in a nucleus?

    • Re:isotope vs isomer (Score:5, Informative)

      by Christopher Thomas (11717) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:19AM (#9093624)
      Next question: how the heck do you control the spin of individual baryons in a nucleus?

      You fire something at the nucleus and isolate the ones where one of the outer-shell nucleons was bumped up to the energy state you want.

      If you fire X or gamma rays at the nucleus, you should only be able to excite very short-lived isomers (if it is boosted by absorbing a photon, it can decay by emitting a photon). Firing things like electrons or protons at the nucleus can excite states that don't have a single-photon decay path. These can be metastable.

      We do the same thing in HeNe lasers. Helium atoms are excited to a metastable state by electric discharge, and after a while interact with neon atoms, putting them in a state suitable for lasing (target state of neon has almost exactly the same energy as the metastable helium state, so the exchange happens easily).

      I hope this helps :).
    • Re:isotope vs isomer (Score:3, Interesting)

      by subnuclear (778110)
      You just have to make a lot of halfnium from some nuclei and some of the halfnium will have this higher energy spin-state spontaneously. You can seperate different spin-states using strong magnets since the amount a particle bends in a magnetic field depends on its spin. The X-rays aren't used to controlled the spin but to the kick the nucleus in to a higher-energy and less stable spin-state. The nucleus then decays into the ground state releasing a much more energetic photon than the X-ray you put in.

      H
  • This idea is NOT a joke--a recent issue of Popular Mechanics talked about such an idea, one that could make it possible for a high-flying UAV such as the Global Hawk to fly 10-20 times the endurance it has now.
  • isnt's that a little weak?

    Hiroshima had an estimated yied of 12-16kt, something that can be done these days with 24kg of plutonium (if google serves, anyway).

    And a golf ball of hafnium can do one ton?

    Seems a little less scary, in a nuclear sense.

    M
  • Hefnerium (Score:2, Informative)

    by sql*kitten (1359) *
    Hefnerium molecules come in pairs and they're larger than golf balls. More like the size of grapefruits.
  • DEar Friends,
    Has anyone considered the money and research hours spent by all those scientists just to check out this expermental breakthrough.
    Then think of all the non-American research people that are going to investigate and spend research dollars if what was said is true about the energy potential of this radioactive isotope?
    As our german soldier from "LAugh-In" would say
    "Veerry Interesting".
  • by Detritus (11846) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:05AM (#9093556) Homepage
    Cool, you could make a nuclear hand grenade. There would be a slight problem with employing it. It would also kill the person who threw the grenade.
  • by starbuzz (590877) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:08AM (#9093562)
    American Physical Society columnist Bob Park reports in his What's New [aps.org] column that the Hf-experiments were found by several groups to be not reproducible. That puts the claim squarely in the category of Bogus Science.
  • Atomic Weight (Score:3, Informative)

    by kcdoodle (754976) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:10AM (#9093579)
    This research is flawed.

    Hafnium is like phoshorus. It spontaneously combusts on contact with air. Adding gamma or xrays isn't going to activate the nucleus of the Hafnium atom somehow.

    Elements that offer nuclear energy are either at the low end or high end of the periodic table. Low-end atomic weight element hydrogen and helium (1 and 4) can be made to fuse (fusion) to create middlish weight elements and energy (look at the sun). High-end atomic weight elements like uranium and plutonium (235 and 238) can be made ti split (fission) and create middlish weight atoms.

    So there is NO WAY you will get a energy-yielding atomic reaction with hafnium and gamma/xrays.

    Hafnium is used in many reactor control rods and are constantly exposed to a barrage of neutrons, gamma rays, fission fragment particles, etc. If this reasearch were true, nearly every nuclear reactor on the planet would be blowing up right now.

    Hafnium might be used in weapons, but it is no more dangerous than phosphorus.

    I live the greatest adventure anyone could want. - Tosk the Hunted
    • Re:Atomic Weight (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Cryect (603197)
      Actually the Hafnium they are discussing is a nuclear isomer. Basically its gotten energy stored from neutrons that have hit it while being used in control rods in a nuclear reactor. The problem with the nuclear isomer is that it doesn't like to give up that energy thats been stored at any rate thats useful. The idea Collins is trying to say is that we can blast it with XRay's and look the amount of neutrons being released is increased slightly over the background radiation.
    • by hak1du (761835)
      So there is NO WAY you will get a energy-yielding atomic reaction with hafnium and gamma/xrays.

      While I have no opinion on whether the effect is real or not, your argument against it is bogus. They aren't claiing an "atomic reaction", they are claiming a state change of the nucleus. It's clear that that exists. The only question is whether it can be induced artificially. If it can, you have a great energy source and the potential to make a bomb. If not, you still have energy release, but it's too slo
    • Re:Atomic Weight (Score:5, Informative)

      by SEE (7681) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @12:14PM (#9093957) Homepage
      Who modded this up? Obviously no one who understood the physics of the story. So let's explain.

      The process described is neither fission nor fusion. Instead, it's analogous to how a light bulb works.

      (What? Yes, a light bulb. Bear with me.)

      In a lightbulb, you add energy to a fillament. The electrons (mostly) in the fillament are placed into excited states by the energy, then very quickly release the energy in the form of photons (visible light) and fall from the excited state into a ground state.

      A similar thing can be done to particles other than electrons -- such as neutrons. In most cases, the neutrons fall from the excited state very quickly and release photons (gamma rays and the like).

      In hafnium, however, the excited state of the neutrons is metastable -- which is just a fancy way of saying they stay excited for a long time between when they're excited and when they release photons.

      If a way could be developed to induce the grounding, then hafnium could be used to store large amounts of energy in the metastable state, and then induced to release it all at once, resulting in much larger discharges than ordinary chemical reactions can store/release.

      It doesn't yield energy; at best you get from the grounding the energy you put in to get the neutrons excited. It isn't fission, and it isn't fusion; not what we typically call a "nuclear" reaction. However, it is a beyond-chemical-bond-capacity energy release based on the nucleus.

      Oh, and by the way, there are middlish-weight elements that are unstable, and thus can provide nuclear energy through ordinary radioactive decay. The classic example is Technetium, number 43 on the Periodic Table, atomic mass 98.
  • Lysenkoism (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:15AM (#9093605) Homepage Journal
    The article makes it clear that the best-equipped labs aren't seeing the claimed triggered decay and theory doesn't support it either.

    The government has been disinviting expert nuclear physicists from funding meetings.

    It's not healthy when government runs with an unconfirmed result and overrides the give-and-take of experimental science. The old Soviet Union did this when the government endorsed maverick biologist Lysenko because his ideas were compatible with Marxism.

    Notice that even if the result can be confirmed it's still many huge jumps from practical application. First you have to mass-produce the excited isomer of hafnium. Then you have to separate it from normal hafnium, a far harder problem than uranium enrichment. Then you need a far higher yield than Collins has claimed, because even at the rate his experiments claim, you'd spend far more energy triggering decays than you'd get back out.

    Stranger things have happened, of course, but right now it makes more sense to be intrigued than to be excited.
  • by Theatetus (521747) * on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:24AM (#9093650) Journal

    "That's a commie lie, Mr. President, our studies show livable conditions return within 2 to 3 years."

    "Obviously you've never heard of Cobalt Thorium G."

  • by digital photo (635872) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @11:46AM (#9093781) Homepage Journal

    Since most of the scientist trying to replicated the results notes that it either can't be replicated like the original experiment or that they are seeing extremely low efficiencies, it probably isn't a problem in terms of increasing world violence/death/etc...

    However, assuming that the original research hinted at what that partiular Hafnium isotope/polymer could do, it would be like an energy sponge: soaking up energy so that it could be squeezed out at a later time.

    Since the energy released is gamma only, you could potentially arrange a bank of these and stimulate the material in much the same way as a nitrogen laser and get a gamma beam where the energy being outputted by each stage is cascaded into the next stage to create a denser coherent beam.

    Would be interesting to see if this Hafnium stuff pans out. If it does, it would make for an interesting beam cannon as opposed to a bomb. You can't be very selective with a bomb, but you can with a beam.

    I'm personally thinking it would be cool to have this technology in a microwave oven. :) Food cooked in under a minute every time. >:)

  • by Salis (52373) <howard...salis@@@gmail...com> on Saturday May 08, 2004 @12:08PM (#9093901) Journal
    Like the end of the report (linked in the slashdot article) mentions, even if Hafnium does indeed emit 2.5MeV X-rays when hit by a 20 keV X-ray then it still could not be used to make a bomb.

    A bomb requires that a chain reaction occur so that the energy released from the initial X-ray emission propogates and hits other Hafnium atoms, making them emit more X-rays. There are two reasons why the bomb will never 'explode':

    1) The possibily bogus research report stated that only a 20 KeV (or a 10 KeV, whatever) would trigger Hafnium emissions. So there would be no propogation from one Hafnium emission to the next.

    2) The 2.5 MeV photons would interact with other particles (electrons, itself, etc) and sap away that energy before it came into contact with another Hafnium atom.

    So, don't worry about a bomb, it's all vaporware.
  • by langles (192276) on Saturday May 08, 2004 @06:43PM (#9096200) Homepage
    While it would be amazing if they could make a workable nuclear device that size, 10 tons of explosive yield for a golf-ball sized mass of material is not a very efficient nuclear weapon.

    Doing a few calculations:

    A golf ball [usga.org] must have a diameter of not less than 1.680 inches (42.67mm)

    or a volume [csgnetwork.com] of 40.679 cm^3.

    Feeding that into Calculation of Density with Halfnium [allmeasures.com], gives a mass of 0.54143749 kg for a golf-ball sized chunk of Halfnium (neglecting the particular isotope in question).

    Assuming metric tons for simplicity, a yield of:

    10 tons / 0.54143749 kg

    Is equivalent to:

    18.5 tons / kg

    Compare that with existing nuclear weapons. Once you scale the weapon above a certain size, and using optimal designs, you can obtain much higher yield efficiencies, or Yield-to-Weight Ratio's.

    "The W-54 Davy Crockett warhead [nuclearweaponarchive.org] ... was the lightest ever deployed by the US, with a minimum mass of about 23 kg (it also came in heavier packages) and had yields ranging from 10 tons up to 1 Kt in various versions."

    Yield-to-Weight Ratios of US Mk-53 Nuclear Weapon [nuclearweaponarchive.org]
    2.25 kt/kg

    Or

    2,250,000 tons / kg

    Which is a MUCH higher efficiency weapon - at least in the energy sense.

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