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

The buildup to the first atomic bomb

Plymouth cars at the atomic bomb siteWhen World War II started, the United States had the world’s 24th rated air power; the Army was the seventh best in the world, the Navy was ranked fifth.

In August 1939, Albert Einstein and former student Leo Szilard drafted a letter to President Roosevelt to say that splitting 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 was a major contributor in making the actual bomb, as well as the delivery system: seven of the eight engines that powered the nuclear-bomb-laden B-29s were built by Chrysler.

The atomic bomb’s principles are easily understood. How people harnessed this energy into a fission is the story.

After years of dithering by project leaders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put the military in charge, tapping 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; 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. Still, he was told he would be promoted to brigadier general if he took the job, and that very day (September 17, 1942), 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 jsut one day, 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 — where he bought a thousand square miles of land.

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

Ground was broken for the diffuser plant almost exactly one year after General Groves took charge. To separate U-235 from uranium by diffusion, it must be brought into contact a highly corrosive gas, uranium hexafluoride, which devoured steel and was only resisted by pure nickel.

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 now-Major General Groves himself.

Chrysler diffuser plant for atomic bomb

The Corporation was in, for $75 million. Chrysler engineers quickly worked out the size of the diffusers. They looked somewhat like oversized steel drums. Based upon the calculations of the scientists, building the 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, since nickel was needed in other places as well.

diffusers built by ChrylserThe engineers at Chrysler suggested that, with careful bonding, nickel plating should work just as well as solid nickel. Their theory was that it was not the depth of the metal that counted as a barrier, it was the metal itself. Chrysler suggested electroplating, which provides a positive bond and a purer form of nickel, which normally has about 1% impurities that cannot be smelted away.

The scientific experts pushed back, saying that the gas would attack the plating, peel it off, and eat through the steel.

Mr. Keller ordered that a large shell be plated and tested. The Head Engineer of the Plating Engineering Section at Chrysler Corporation, Carl Heussner, had to argue with the Columbia scientific team assigned to test the idea for two whole days to get them to agree to test the plated metal sample.

K.T. KellerNo hexafluoride gas could be used at the time, so Mr. Heussner covered a large chunk of boiler plate with a thin sheet of nickel, and immersed it in a solution of boiling water and carbon dioxide. Now the problem was finding a work space.

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.

Then he had to find 500,000 square feet of manufacturing space, clean to the point of commercial sterility. Chrysler converted the Lynch Road factory to manufacture the diffusers, which had been making military trucks; those were pushed to a much smaller building. 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.

Outsiders estimated the number of diffusers at 7,000. The K-25 Diffusion Plant at Oak Ridge Tennessee ran until 1985.

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

Chrysler accomplished its assigned task in record time, passing the completed drums to the next contractor, who was supposed to attach tubes to the insides. Unfortunately, these tubes were not precisely sealed, allowing leaks of fluoride and Freon. Later studies indicated that the diffusing process at Oak Ridge was the single largest source of causing ozone damage.

Chrysler worked closely with Union Carbide, which operated the K-25 diffusing plant. Taking weeks to erect in what would ordinarily have been years, 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.

nuclear bombRobert 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. 

The plating process applied by Chrysler in all of the diffusers never failed, functioning right up until the plant was taken apart in 1985.

Appendix: costs

The Brookings Institute estimated the U.S.’s expenditures for World War II:

  • All bombs, mines and grenades: $31.5 billion
  • Small arms material excluding ammunition: $24 billion
  • All tanks (including Chrysler's arsenal): $64 billion
  • Heavy field artillery: $4 billion
  • All other artillery: $33.6 billion
  • Manhattan Project:
    • Oak Ridge - $13 billion
    • Hannaford Engineering - $4.4 billion
    • Total: $21.6 billion, 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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