Ames Laboratory


In 1939, the U.S. government asked leading scientists to join in a consolidated national effort to develop atomic energy. In order for a uranium fission chain reaction to be successful, tons of uranium metal needed to be produced with a purity far beyond what was commercially available.

In 1942, Iowa State University’s Frank H. Spedding and subsequently Harley A. Wilhelm initiated a chemical research and development program to accompany the Manhattan Project's existing physics program. The Ames group developed a process for producing nearly pure uranium, (removing virtually all impurities and decay products), making it possible to cast large ingots of the uranium for nuclear reactor purposes. The Ames Project furnished one-third of the uranium metal used in the first successful demonstration of a chain-reacting pile at the University of Chicago.

After proving that a chain reaction could be self-sustained and controlled, the need for pure uranium greatly increased. The Ames Project produced as much metal as possible until private industry took over the process in 1945. The Ames Project developed new methods for both melting and casting uranium metal, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal and reducing production costs by as much as twenty-fold. This uranium production process is still used today.

The Ames Laboratory converted more than 2 million pounds of greensalt, uranium tetrafuoride, to pure metallic uranium, (0.7% U235) for the Manhattan Project. The Ames Laboratory was formally established as an AEC (now DOE) research facility in 1947 by the Atomic Energy Commission as a result of the Ames Project's successful development of the most efficient process to produce high-purity uranium metal in large quantities for atomic energy.

The histories of processes which follow are based upon workers’ interviews without confirmation from laboratory documents.  As regards to beryllium use in the Manhattan era work, Dr. Wilhelm studied the exothermic reaction generated from encasing pure uranium in pure beryllium by machining beryllium vessels and filling them with purified uranium and monitoring the heat generation.  In addition to uranium purification, over fifty years of DOE contracts report that a variety of lanthanide series metal, rare earth elements, alkaline metals, and rare gas solids applied research activity had been performed, some of which involved potential for a combination of radioisotope exposures, beryllium machining, and other toxic metals exposures.

Research activities between 1959 and 1971 largely involved purification of the lanthanide series metals involving isolation of itrium, processing over 600 pounds of gadolinium, using beryllium, beryllium ceramic vessels and oxalate salts to precipitate rare earth elements, and machining beryllium metal occasionally.  Another use of beryllium metal in this era involved studies of alkaline metals, lithium, potassium, rubidium and cesium under extreme pressures (300,000 PSI.) in a ten ton press.  The pressure chambers were custom-made carbide-beryllium piston cylinders within a jacket of beryllium-copper.  The pressure seals, equivalent to piston rings, were custom machined copper-beryllium rings.  The potential for beryllium exposures from this process would have resulted from machining both the cylinders and rings.

The Ames Laboratory has broadened its scope beyond materials research over the years.  Today, the Ames Laboratory pursues a broad range of applied research activities in chemical, materials, engineering, environmental, mathematical, and physical sciences under a variety of Federal contracts.