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Chrysler Corporation helps to build the atomic bomb (A-bomb)

Introduction: Buildup to the first atomic bomb

Plymouth cars at the atomic bomb siteWhen World War II started, we had the world's 24th rated air power; our Army was a bit higher, coming in as the 7th best in the world. The Navy was ranked fifth.

In August 1939, the famed Albert Einstein, along with former student Leo Szilard, drafted a letter to President Roosevelt suggesting that a process of splitting of uranium atoms could set off a chain reaction which could result in a powerful new bomb. Germany had already begun their quest to have this new power.

Chrysler not only became a major industrial contributor in the making of the actual bomb, it was also a major player in the making of the delivery system as well. Seven of the eight engines that powered the B-29s that took the weapons to Japan were built by Chrysler.

For the history of the science behind the atomic bomb — and the long American effort to build one — see this separate page.

The atomic bomb’s principles can be understood by anyone who chooses to sit and listen for a few moments. How people harnessed this energy into a fission is the story.

After years of dithering by atomic-bomb development leaders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to put the military in charge — specifically, 46-year-old Colonel Leslie R. Groves, an engineer and one of the oldest colonels in the military. His PhD had taken ten years to obtain, as lieutenant; he was harsh, strict, a hard worker, and, as Chief of Army Construction, was finishing up the building of the Pentagon.

Groves was not well liked. Some labeled him the greatest SOB that they ever encountered. Still, he was told he would be promoted to Brigadier General if he took the job. That very day, he met with the current engineer in charge. The office that had the lead in the project was in New York, so the name was coded as the "Manhattan Engineering District." Groves shortened it to the "Manhattan Project."

There was no uranium, nor had any supplies for it been acquired. No one had figured out if they could make the U-235 or plutonium that would be needed for a bomb.

Oak Ridge atomic bomb plantAfter oen day, on September 18, 1942, Groves found a source of uranium in Canada. On September 24, 1942, he was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, scouting a site to refine U-235 and plutonium. 

It was pointed out that it would be extremely dangerous to have both plants in the same area, so Groves looked elsewhere for a spot to make plutonium, settling on an area Hannaford, Washington — and he bought a thousand square miles of land there.

Oak Ridge grew extremely rapidly, with whole streets and barracks set up from modular kits. It took three days for full setup for 540 people including streets and curbs. Eventually, the staff hit 75,000; in less than one year, Oak Ridge became the State of Tennessee’s fifth largest city. Yet, you could not find it on any map. Its location was secret.

Chrysler is called in

Chrysler diffuser plant for atomic bombGround was broken for the diffuser plant in September 1943.

However, to separate U-235 from uranium by diffusion, it must be brought into a gas, uranium hexafluoride — but that gas was highly corrosive in the extreme, devouring steel. Only straight pure nickel would resist the gas.

General Groves gambled that it was an engineering problem, not a scientific one. Colonel Edward Garbisch, an Army engineer and son-in-law of the late Walter P. Chrysler, telephoned Chrysler President K.T. Keller, requesting a meeting at the Detroit Office of the Corporation. The meeting was led by General Groves himself, now a Major General.

The Corporation was in, for a $75 million contract. Chrysler engineers quickly worked out the size of the diffusers. They looked somewhat like oversized steel drums.

Based upon the calculations of the scientists, to build the amount of diffusers, that the project had called for, would take every single available source of nickel that could be had for the next two full years. That was untenable in view of the war effort, where nickel was needed in other places as well.

The engineers at Chrysler suggested that, with careful bonding, nickel plating should work just as well as solid nickel. Their theory was that it is not the depth of the metal that counted as a barrier, it is the metal itself.

The scientific experts pushed back, saying that the gas is so hideous that it would just attack the plating, peel it off, and eat through the steel, ruining the entire project. Chrysler's process would now have to be laboratory proven under controlled conditions, which should have been expected as ordinary tests of the materials to begin with.

diffusers built by ChrylserChrysler suggested electroplating, which provides a positive bond and a purer form of nickel, which normally has about 1% impurities that cannot be smelted away.

Mr. Keller ordered that a large shell be plated and then tested. The Head Engineer of the Plating Engineering Section at Chrysler Corporation, Carl Heussner, had found the Columbia scientific team, assigned to test the idea, to be unconcerned with the amount of nickel reuqired, and it had taken two whole days of meetings to get the laboratory to agree to even test the plated metal sample.

At the time, no hexafluoride gas could be lent for these experiments. Mr. Heussner chose for this first test a large chunk of boiler plate, then covered it with a thin sheet of nickel, and immersed it in a solution of boiling water and carbon dioxide. The government ordered that there was no more need to control test the plating in the water carbon dioxide bath.

K.T. KellerMr. Keller began a concerted search for space to work in. The exact number of people involved probably will never be known, most likely over 2,500, each only concerned with the area they were assigned to.

Mr. Keller attended a War Bond rally at 1525 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. The building used to be a department store, but now the first floor was serving as the temporary headquarters for the bond drives. Upon returning to his office, he immediately ordered that the space up above be rented. All the Chrysler personnel associated with “Project X-100” moved in and stayed there for nearly two years.

The first order of business was to find manufacturing space, with around 500,000 square feet required, clean to the point of commercial sterility. Chrysler converted the Lynch Road factory to manufacture the diffusers, given the lack of steel to build a new plant. The Lynch Road plant had been engaged in the manufacture of military trucks, ending up in a much smaller building. However, the operations were not interrupted by the move.

For sterility, the building was converted to air conditioning, with a complex filtration system to remove as many particles in the air as possible. They used Chrysler’s AirTemp division, which had done the Chrysler Building in New York and Pullman cars for the railroads.

No exact number of diffusers is known, even after the K-25 Diffusion Plant at Oak Ridge Tennessee was dismantled; there was an estimate of 7,000. The K-25 plant ran until 1985.

separating uraniumThe diffusers needed millions pin holes at precise places throughout the surfaces to allow the gas to flow freely, which also had to be radius turned to smooth the edges.

There were also hundreds of small tubes associated with the diffusing method — not associated with Chrysler, which accomplished its assigned task in record time. Unfortunately, these tubes were not be precisely sealed, allowing leaks of both fluoride and Freon, both extremely damaging to the ozone layer around the Earth. Later studies indicated that the diffusing process at Oak Ridge was the single largest source of causing this damage.

nuclear bombChrysler worked closely with Union Carbide, which operated the K-25 diffusing plant. Taking weeks to erect in what would have been years in ordinary situations, it was an engineering triumph. If it had not been for the engineering acumen and prowess of the Chrysler Corporation Engineering Team, the diffusing plant would not have been on line until late 1945.

Robert Oppenheimer, in charge of the Las Alamos Development Laboratory in New Mexico, had U-235 that was around 90% pure by mid-April 1945. By the end of June 1945, while the "Gadget" was being assembled at Las Alamos, Oak Ridge had provided 132 pounds of the enriched U-235 from an estimated ore delivery of 150,000 rail cars of ore. 

The plant started turning out enriched uranium in April 1945, thanks to Chrysler. The plating process applied by Chrysler in all of the diffusers never failed, functioning right up until 1985.

Appendix: costs

The Brookings Institute  compiled some of the cost figures for the total dollars spent for World War II for the United States. It is broken down as follows:

  • All bombs, mines and grenades: $31,500,000,000 ($31.5 billion)
  • Small arms material excluding ammunition: $24,000,000,000 ($24 billion)
  • All tanks (including Chrysler's arsenal): $64,000,000,000 ($64 billion)
  • Heavy field artillery: $4,000,000,000 ($4 billion)
  • All other artillery: $33,600,000,000 ($33.6 billion)
  • Manhattan Project:
    • Oak Ridge total - $13,565,662,000 ($13 billion)
    • Hannaford Engineer works - $4,453,470,000 ($4 billion)
    • Total: $21,570,821,000, or about $5 billion per bomb.

While the secretive atomic bomb drew the most attention, it was not the most expensive project of the war; the government spent more on radar, to the tune of about $27 billion. Without the benefits of radar, neither the plane that flew the bombs nor the coordinated air force establishment of air superiority would have been possible.

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