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Monday, June 4, 2007

Hafinum Bombs

In the latter half of 1998, a small clutch of researchers and students at the University of Texas embarked upon a groundbreaking experiment. Within a large outbuilding marked with a slapdash sign reading "Center for Quantum Electronics", the team powered up a makeshift x-ray emitter and directed its radiation beam at an overturned disposable coffee cup. Atop the improvised styrofoam platform was a tiny smear of one of the most expensive materials on Earth: a variation of the chemical element hafnium known as Hf-178-m2.

The researchers' contraption– cobbled together from a scavenged dental x-ray machine and an audio amplifier– bombarded the sample with radiation for several days as monitoring equipment quietly collected data. When the experiment ended and the measurements were scrutinized, the project leader Dr. Carl B. Collins declared unambiguous success. If his conclusions are accurate, Collins and his colleagues may have found the key to developing fist-sized bombs which can deliver destruction equivalent to a dozen tons of conventional explosives. Despite considerable skepticism from the scientific community, the US Department of Defense has since spent millions of dollars probing the physicist's findings.

Hafnium-178-m2 is a nuclear isomer– an atomic state where the particles of the nucleus are "excited" by higher than normal amounts of energy. Most such isomers are unstable and extremely short-lived, instantly ejecting their excess energy as gamma radiation in order to return to the ground state. But a handful of varieties such as hafnium-178-m2 have a constitution which prevents this release from occurring immediately, which places them in the category of nearly-stable.

This interesting property causes nearly-stable isomers to act as "energy sponges", allowing them to absorb a massive amount of energy which bleeds out very slowly. Hafnium-178-m2 has a half-life of thirty-one years, meaning that it takes a little over three decades for half of the isomer's stored energy to be emitted as gamma rays. Hafnium is also notable for having the highest excitation energy among the nearly-stable isomers; half a teaspoon of pure Hf-178-m2 contains about the same amount of potential energy as one ton of TNT.

The purpose of Dr. Collins' experiment was to explore the possibility of wringing all of the energy from these isomers on demand. He theorized that properly applied x-rays might prompt the nuclei to dump all of their energy at in a short amount of time, a process referred to as induced gamma emission (IGE). To test this theory a few of Collins' enterprising students procured a second-hand dental x-ray machine, married it to a commercial-grade stereo amplifier, and trained the radiation-emitting apparatus upon a precious smudge of hafnium-178-m2 for several weeks. Dr. Carl Collins in his laboratory at the University of TexasDr. Carl Collins in his laboratory at the University of TexasDr. Collins then digested the data and logged his conclusions.

According to the paper Collins published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters, his experiment successfully "triggered" the hafnium isomers into an enhanced decay rate. His sensitive instrumentation had apparently registered a small yet unmistakable increase in gamma ray levels during the test. The implications were clear: if one can accelerate the energy release rate of an isomer to a small degree, it follows that there is probably some set of conditions where the atoms can be coaxed to belch all of their energy very rapidly.

Dr. Collins' credibility was soon battered by a storm of skepticism and ridicule. Many scientists were uncomfortable with his outlandish claims and his experiment's large margin for error. Indeed, his findings were somewhat at odds with the laws of physics given that nuclei are thought to be practically unaffected by electromagnetic radiation. However a small minority of researchers were moved to curiosity by the unorthodox idea, prompting a series of independent efforts to reproduce the findings.

The concept also piqued the Pentagon's interest. Since an isomer bomb would represent a new class of non-fission weapons, it would neatly circumvent the limitations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. Furthermore, a working hafnium device would tend to deluge its target area with absurd amounts of penetrating gamma radiation during the explosion, liquefying the flesh of any persons nearby– even those protected by bunkers. But the most appealing aspect of isomer triggering was its potential to shoehorn yet more death and destruction into convenient "fun size" packages.
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Posted by Ajay :: 6:06 PM :: 0 comments

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